Parashat Vayakhel Torah Reading: Exodus 35:1-38:20
"Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for the Lord--gold, or silver, wool or linen, wood or oil, spices or stones, anything to make the Sanctuary more glorious for God," said Moses.
In this week's Torah reading, Bezalel and his workers actually construct the portable tabernacle and the accessories that God has described in previous parshiot/Torah Readings.
When describing the project to His new project manager, God says "build me a tabernacle that I might dwell among the people." In other words, God sought to find a mechanism for bringing God and the people closer together.
And just as we welcome new neighbors and bring gifts when they move into the new neighborhood, the Israelites bring gifts to glorify God's new home.
I love this imagery of welcoming God to the neighborhood with gifts. And even though the gifts that individual Israelites are moved to bring are grand gifts, indeed, there is something intimate and endearing about this gift-giving. The Israelites respond to God's wish to live among them with open arms and generous spirits.
Today, each of our homes are described by the tradition as a "mikdash m'at" . . . as a sanctuary writ small. We have the ability to welcome God to live among us in our own homes. How wonderful if we could welcome God's presence into our homes with the same open arms and generosity of spirit that our Israelite ancestors displayed when God moved into their neighborhood!
Parashat Ki Tissa Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11-34:35
I write and speak often about the centrality of community to the Jewish experience. John Donne posited that "no man is an island" . . . Judaism posits that no lone Jew is a self-sufficient island either.
We are dependent on each other in a myriad of ways: We need 9 other Jews to read Torah, to praise God with the words of the Kaddish, to bring a child into the covenanted community of Israel . . . we need a community of Jews to educate our children, to educate ourselves, to be inspired and supported.
This week's Torah reading establishes the principle of "stakeholder" in the community of Israel . . . according to this week's Torah reading every adult Israelite was required to donate a half shekel to support the rituals of the wilderness Tabernacle. The half shekel was a modest amount of money, within the means of all but the community's destitute.
There were always opportunities for people of greater means to contribute more to the sustenance of the Tabernacle, the Cohanim/Priests and Levi'im/Levites.
But the universal application of the half-shekel donation meant that everyone was a stakeholder, everyone could look everyone else in the eye knowing that everyone had met the elemental obligation of community responsibility.
Today, the half-shekel has evolved into synagogue dues . . . but the power of looking each other in the eye and knowing that together we have sustained the central institution of our community is the same.
Parashat Terumah Torah Reading: Exodus 25:1-27:19
We are all trying to understand the upheaval in Egypt which is capturing media attention around the world. We must not underestimate the more orderly but also significant developments in Jordan.
The Pew Research Center is an invaluable resource when we are looking at phenomena we haven't the background to analyze independently.
I found the following information from Pew very helpful, I hope you will, too. Let's spend some time on Shabbat morning after services discussing the week's events.
Pew Research Center Resources on Egypt
The Pew Forum's recent demographic study, The Future of the Global Muslim Population, finds that there are an estimated 80 million Muslims in Egypt today, making up 94.7% of Egypt's population. The report projects that Egypt's Muslim population will rise to roughly 105 million by 2030, but the percent of the population that is Muslim is expected to remain the same.
A 2009 Pew Forum report on restrictions on religion around the world found that Egypt is among the countries with the highest government restrictions on religion.
In a survey conducted last spring, the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that a majority of Egyptian Muslims said that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. An overwhelming majority also viewed Islam's influence in politics as positive.
By wide margins, Muslims surveyed in the spring of 2010 believed that Islam's influence in politics was positive rather than negative. In Egypt, Islam's role in politics was seen favorably by an overwhelming 85%-to-2% margin among Muslims.
Global Restrictions on Religion, a new study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that 64 nations - about one-third of the countries in the world - have high or very high restrictions on religion. But because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.
Among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa has the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. Among the world's 25 most populous countries , Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India stand out as having the most restrictions when both measures are taken into account, while Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom have the least.
Parashat Mishpatim Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah takes us from the sublime moment of the revelation at Sinai in last week's reading to a catalogue of mitzvot/commandments relating to a wide range of prosaic subjects in this week's parashah/ Torah reading.
Among the subjects covered in Parashat Mishpatim:
Different categories of assault
Laws concerning theft
Who is responsible for the damage done by fire
The treatment of orphans and widows
Prohibition from accepted bribes
and many more . . .
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in a compilation of his teachings called Pebbles of Wisdom, asks: "Does God have to descend from Heaven just to instruct the members of a fugitive tribe about things they could learn by themselves if they took the trouble?"
Indeed, cultures before, after, and contemporary with Israelite religion have developed legal codes which relate to all of the subjects addressed in Mishpatim. There is a lot of common sense woven into these mitzvot. There are a lot of insightful values woven into these mitzvot as well . . . approaches to these challenges of human existence that bring human dignity and a sense of the holy to every day life.
In this case, the medium is very much the message.
The presence of this catalogue of civil and criminal law in the Torah is very much the message.
Rabbi Steinsaltz continues:
"The point is that what God says is unique and special, not in terms of content but because it is God who says it. Included are the ethical formulas, "thou shall not do" and "thou shall do" this or that, which are all part of the human structure. But when the same injunction is part of a Divine communication, it acquires another dimension of power and meaning. As, for example, in music, the intervals and emphasis are just as important as the notes themselves."
Parashat Mishpatim comes to encourage us to let Judaism out of the box. Judaism was never meant to be confined to ritual and dietary laws and prayers . . . although all those are important. Parashat Mishpatim encourages us to welcome Judaism into our everyday lives.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.