(Sacred Deeds, Sacred Time and Sacred Space)
D’var Torah for Parashah Va-Yak-Hel
February 26, 2011
In the Etz Hayim commentary before T’rumah, the parashah we read a few weeks ago, we learn that we can maintain the feeling of Sinai through a combination of sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space.
Sacred deeds are the stuff of our reading four weeks ago, in Mishpatim. There we learned how to treat a slave; the consequences of assault, murder and kidnapping; the responsibilities for animals, assets and people under our charge; the expectations for appropriate sexual behavior; how to treat strangers; the rules of fair lending; the requirement to speak justly; laws that provide for the needy…in short, we learn how to act under a legal construct that helps assure a people that carries out sacred deeds in its daily living.
Why has the text now veered away from sacred deeds for several parashiot? I believe that we need more than rules to govern our actions. We need a context. This is where time and space come into play.
Parashah Va-yak-hel begins with sacred time, the text reading: “These are the things that Adonai has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai.” (Exodus 35:2) This identifies Shabbat as sacred time and, almost paradoxically, instructs that the building of the Tabernacle—of sacred space—may occur only outside of that sacred time.
We then move on to a painstakingly detailed description of the materials required for building the Tabernacle and the process of gathering those materials and constructing what is to be God’s home in the wilderness. I believe that the level of detail indicates the tremendous importance of sacred space. What’s more, the narrative tells us that the creation of such space was a deeply emotional experience. The project called for an extraordinary amount of finery, yet the people—who brought their most beautiful possessions of their own free will and not under compulsion—gave even more than was required. In repeated instances the text tells us of an impassioned response with phrases such as:
- Everyone whose heart so moves him,
- Everyone whose spirit moved him came,
- Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, and
- The men and women whose hearts moved them
In his book The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Bradley Artson sees in Va-yak-hel an affirmation of the important role of art in Jewish tradition. He writes:
“God directly inspires the artist, so that sculpture, architecture, music, and other forms of artistic expression provide a privileged path of religious expression. … Art gives voice to those mute, inaccessible parts of our souls.”
In November, my husband Brad and I enjoyed the privilege of visiting the Amano Museum in Lima, Peru, a small but extraordinary private collection of pre-Incan ceramics and textiles dating from several thousand BCE to about 800 CE. To see the artistic, whimsical, creative pieces from those periods makes it clear that aesthetic appreciation and creativity are fundamental to being human; this collection is the best answer to those who would argue to cut public funding of the arts because it’s not a basic necessity…or that we need not invest in maintaining the beauty of our surroundings as an integral element of our religious experience.
But, as Rabbi Artson points out, this human passion for art is not necessarily holy. Last week, in Ki Tissa, we learned about the passionate, artistic expression that became the unholy golden calf…while now that same impulse brings us the space of the mishkan. Of course, the Israelites created the golden calf before they had the law—the context for sacred deeds—and their sacred time had been disrupted by the long absence of Moshe and the extended encampment at Sinai, with no knowledge of when their leader might return and bring them back to a sense of God’s presence.
Thus we see the critical combination of the three sacred elements of deeds, time and space in the Israelite community.
It is no different in a contemporary Jewish. We have all been asked to participate in capital campaigns that to
help raise capital funds for the future of our congregations. The very premise is that by attending to sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space we can make a long-lasting impact on our community and establish a legacy for future generations. The current effort for meeting my synagogue’s needs seeks to assure our strength into the future through:
- Sacred time by providing funding for innovative expansion of our religious and educational programming;
- Sacred deeds with endowments to help perpetuate tuition subsidies and with investment in accessibility; and
- Sacred space to ensure the ongoing beauty, safety, security and longevity of our spiritual home—a physical context that helps nurture our religious life.
Sometimes we may find ourselves arguing about which is the right—or perhaps righteous—target for our funds. But our text teaches us that there is no choice to make; we need all three, united, in order to function as a holy people. And, it teaches that women have a critical role in helping meet that need.
In The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Rabbi Nancy Weiner writes that this parashah is the only one in which “women… are identified as a significant group within the larger whole” and that “gives us a taste of the variety of ways that women contributed to the vitality and maintenance of the people’s material and spiritual life.”
In Va-Yak-Hel we hear of women with—yet independent from—men, with references to their talent, their participation in the community, and their free will in their choice of bringing their possessions for the tabernacle; and we hear of them having their own possessions. The women essentially form a donor group within the Israelite people. Just as women’s auxiliaries raise funds for their congregations. Just a Jewish Federations develop women’s philanthropy groups. These are not contemporary phenomena, but part of our tradition as Jewish women, reaching back to the capital campaign that made it possible to build the mishkan. With that in mind, as our own communities of women—collectively and as individuals—passionately invest in the sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space of their congregations, they do so in sisterhood with those at Sinai who led the way.
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