Pikudei -Exodus 38:21-40:38 March 7, 2008 by Barbara Brotman.
This Shabbat's Torah portion is about my friend Avra Cohn.Avra is sitting over there. Hi, Avra!
You may not recall anything in the Torah about Avra. But the Pkudei portion is about Avra nonetheless specifically, about what Avra does.
What Avra does is make things beautiful. Avra is co-chair with me of the temples membership/community committee. She organized and designed tonights evening. She is the person who made the room where we are about to eat our Shabbat dinner glittery and elegant and lovely. She does that with every dinner and party she touches, and youll see what I mean when you see the extraordinary Shabbat gift bags you are about to get. She has a gift; she has an eye. She uses them to make things beautiful.
And this Shabbats Torah portion is about making things beautiful. In Pkudei, we read about the building of the Tabernacle. It is some tabernacle. It and the priestly accoutrements are described in lush detail, from the gold threads worked into the blue, purple and crimson yarns of the ephod to the breastpiece set with stones - carnelian, emerald, turquoise, sapphire and amethyst. A diadem of pure gold, decorated turbans of fine linen, a robe with blue, purple and crimson yarns twisted into the shapes of pomegranates these are no commonplace items. They are beautiful extraordinarily and purposefully beautifully.
But to what purpose? Why the emphasis on physical appearance, even opulence? Are we to take away a sense of a god who demands emeralds and sapphires? That our synagogues should drip with precious metals and jewels? Those are disturbing and unsatisfying conclusions. Surely there have to be others.
But never mind the cost; whats happening is that the Tabernacle is being made beautiful. Lets look at that for a moment instead of the emeralds, and ask why? What is the purpose of making the Tabernacle beautiful? Or making anything beautiful? Why do we set a special table for Shabbat? Why do we use white tablecloths? Why do we put out fresh flowers?
They make us feel well, if not beautiful, then a sweet sense of pleasure. When we see something beautiful, whether a Shabbat table or a painting, it has an effect on us. Which brings up another question to ask: Why?
Why does seeing something beautiful evoke a powerful response in us? Why do we care?
Let me offer an answer that comes from Arthur Green of Brandeis College and Hebrew College. Rabbi Green, one of the worlds foremost authorities on Jewish spiritualism, spoke in Chicago a few years ago, and my Torah study group went to hear him. During the coffee-and-cake afterwards, he hung around long enough and was goodnatured enough to sit with our group and answer some questions. I figured, What the hey, and asked mine:
I asked him, Why do you believe in God?
Well, you might as well cut to the chase.
And what he said was this: Because there is no evolutionary advantage in my being moved to tears by a piece of music.
He was talking about beauty beauty in something we hear, but he could just as easily have talked about beauty in something we see. So much of existence can be explained in Darwinian terms. Our bodies and perhaps our minds work in certain ways because these ways confer evolutionary advantage. There is a point to things.
But what about beauty? What is the point of beauty?
If joy upon encountering beautiful music or art serves no evolutionary purpose, why do we feel it? Why do we have whatever internal receptors make us create and crave beauty if they serve no purpose?
Could it be that there is no rational reason that we are talking about a different realm entirely the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual, the holy? There are, to be sure, Darwinian possibilities: Maybe people are knitted together more tightly when they experience similar emotions when encountering a work of art, and it is that bond that confers evolutionary advantage. Maybe the endorphins released when we encounter art and experience pleasure help us live longer and procreate more. Maybe thats why so many first dates are to a museum.
Maybe. Or maybe just partly.
Isnt it possible that being moved by beauty is to some degree a spiritual response with no evolutionary purpose at all? Call it god, call it holiness, call is transcendence - the lump in your throat at a perfectly held note, the warmth that spreads through you when you look at an impressionist painting drenched in that magical Mediterranean light, the inward sigh of pleasure you feel when you look over a table glowing with candelight and flowers maybe we are hearing an echo of that still, small voice. Maybe we are, in a sense, seeing it.
Our tradition recognizes that transcendence. We set a special table for Shabbbat partly to hallow the day, but also to hallow ourselves.
So after this service let us go into a room made beautiful by my friend Avra. Let us feel that sweet delight, and let us consider the possibility that our savoring of it may be a thing of wonder itself; that the act of making something beautiful, whether a Tabernacle our a Shabbat table, lovely to behold may, may in a rational sense mean nothing and so, in a deeper sense, may mean everything.
March 20, 1998 by Deborah Spector
Shalom Aleichem -
This week we read a double Torah portion - Vayakhel and Pikudei, closing our reading of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus. Moses has come down from Sinai with the second set of tablets and with a radiant face. He gives the Children of Israel their instructions for building the Tent of Meeting and we read of the magnificent artistry of the Ark, the curtain, the Menorah, the altar and the priests’ vestments.
Sealing the holiness of the endeavor, Moses begins by reminding the Children of Israel: "On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God; whoever does work on it shall be put to death, Your shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day."
There are so many things to say about Shabbat - beginning with God’s abstinence from work in the second chapter of Bereshit, Genesis, to God’s blessing in Isaiah for those who keep his Sabbaths. There is profound beauty in the mystical imagery which is part of our liturgy, our poetry, our literature. There are the myriad practices to preserve Shabbat, to make it spiritually and psychologically sound and full of meaning. It is God’s and yet it is ours. It is unconnected to the rhythms of nature and it is connected to rhythms which are greater than nature. It is one of our ways of affirming again and again the creation, the redemption from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai. In prayer it is our time to affirm and thank and praise, not to supplicate. It is indeed a piece of the world to come.
But instead of talking about those beautiful things, I thought is might be more useful tonight to bring in a dose of Shabbat reality. Let’s talk about actually observing Shabbat here, in the near western suburbs, particularly if you have kids or happen to find yourself among them often, and you’re a little anxious and disengaged at the prospect of making Shabbat part of your life. Let’s keep it really simple - Friday night only - and meet next year to talk about Saturday.
Now, some of you may be "pros" at preparing for and making Shabbat, so that at the appropriate time the candles are lit, the table is attractive, the food is ready, Shalom Aleichem is sung, the wine and the day are blessed, the Sabbath Bride is among you. You guys have another cup of coffee.
Because I suspect that for many people here, like for me, making Shabbat is a work in progress.
I was raised in a family in which my mother always "benched licht" and we almost always had challah, and sometimes we recited kiddush (but just blessing the wine, not the day). So things were somewhat familiar when as an adult I started observing Shabbat with my own family. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.
I started small, like you’re supposed to, and quite self-consciously, with candles and challah, and with an overriding sense of inauthenticity. But I cleaned and cooked and set the table with our best. And I would gather my family to welcome the Sabbath bride and instead I found myself confronting the warmth of the family fight over who lights the candles, who says the Motzi, and whether or not we should bless the dog. Now, I have a wonderful sweet family - but when I gathered them round my guys looked at me as if I were from outer space, and they rolled their eyes, and made jokes, and rivaled each other to be the first to leave the table. This mode of welcoming Shabbat went on for quite a while - we’re talking more than months here - and I was sure I was doing something wrong and that this was not the authentic Shabbat it was meant to be.
I’ve spoken to some other women about this and found astonishing solidarity and support for what I thought had been our family secret.
One summed it up saying, "That warm feeling I try to create is often lost by people blowing out candles, lighting paper to see what happens, taking 800 pieces of challah, complaining about the challah, complaining about the choice of challah cover, and [my favorite,] telling me the chicken is "almost as good as school lunch."
She also says that from her home another Jewish home can be seen through the window. Candles are glowing as the sun sets and the children say, Mama, why do we light our candles at dinner while Bubbie & Zayde Appleseed (who light at sundown) do it right?
In the most recent issue of Reform Judaism Rabbi Harold Shulweis has a very sweet piece about work and Shabbat, and fear of Shabbat, fear of taking the time to pause to be spiritually engaged. He says we fear the Sabbath as slaves fear freedom. He makes the case for the challenge of taking this day of sanity and holiness. But I take issue with one of his comments. Rabbi says: "If there is shouting at the Sabbath table, the candles are extinguished." I’m not promoting shouting at the Sabbath table, or mean-spirited behavior. But when you decide to make Shabbat part of your life it may not be perfect, and it may be slow, and what happens at your table on Friday night may not always meet your expectations, and you may wonder about its authenticity.
Judaism is in many ways a set of prescribed behaviors, whatever we may believe about their origin, and behaviorists that we are as Jews, we just keep doing it. We keep making Shabbat - and it’s "making" Shabbat because although God’s seventh day will inexorably come, we have to affirmatively act to observe it. We have to act to make the time distinct. We can’t wait to be overwhelmed by the beauty of Shabbat - and moved to let it carry us along - it just isn’t gonna happen unless we make it happen.
So back to my own little family saga . . . Friday night after Friday night we laughed and fought and were frustrated, sometimes, and sometimes we were moved and in tune with Shabbat, sometimes. And gradually certain things happened - we found we never miss lighting the candles, even if we’re going out, like tonight. We avoid movies and meetings and school bazaars. My husband, who is not Jewish, gets the flowers, even if he usually can’t make it home in time for the candles. When someone drops in for dinner, they become part of what they perceive as a religious observance in our dining room.
And the results are incredible - a few summers ago friends were visiting from the East, practicing Catholics, and we were outside on a warm summer night. I slipped in quietly to light the candles but everyone followed me. And my friend said his breath was taken away by the power of doing this in our home, on a warm summer night, as naturally as the sun was going down. We were benching licht, but he could tell that we were sanctifying the day.
And another reward - my children and I gradually expand our Friday night observance, adding the kiddush ha-yom, the blessings for the children (and the dog). The portion from Genesis we recite before the bracha: …Va-yechulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’chal tz’va-am. No one has asked me for z’mirot, the songs of Shabbat, because frankly they beg me not to sing. Very gradually my kids and I have learned to make havdallah late on Saturday - that most mysterious and exotic of home rituals when we part from the Sabbath.
At times in our lives each of us may find ourselves alone on Shabbat or with people who don’t observe. And like the first step we might take with a child, we just have to light the candles for ourselves. Sometimes too much is made about the family nature of all we do Jewishly, and I have been guilty of taking the easy way out tonight by shamelessly using kids. But the point of course is just to do it. To hear it, and to do it. As Rabbi Alan Bregman says, the ritual of observing Shabbat is a binding act for Jews everywhere. As we light our candles, Jews all the over the world do so in an act of affirmation. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.
Chaverim, Shabbat Shalom.