The Latest from BZBI

Focal Point

Tetzaveh 5779 / 16 February 2019

February 20, 2019

Call to mind the most beautiful building you have ever been inside. Focus on the details: how were the walls aligned, and what materials were used to construct it? What furniture and decorations were inside? Who used the building, and how were they dressed?

Now, turn to the person next to you, say “shabbat shalom,” and one of you describe to the other the physical construction of the building and its furnishing – not how you felt being inside, but literally the physical details of how it was built and from what materials.

How was your description of the physical characteristics different from your emotional experience of being inside? For the listeners, how did you feel listening to your partner describe the building?

I have been sitting with the same questions about the five Torah portions we read at the end of  the book of Exodus: they describe a long-vanished structure that, if the replicas in Israel are any indication, must have been spectacular to experience. And yet the description is just that – a description, full of dry detail without any of the evocative power of the real thing. Even the diagrams and sketches in the back of our Etz Hayyim humashim can’t fully convey the fundamental experience of being in the Mishkan. These parshiyyot can’t convey the true power of a long-gone sanctuary, and at the same time our Torah reading is more than a mere history lesson. What lasting insight do these chapters offer us?  

At the end of last year, a group of clergy in Center City West started meeting for lunch and spiritual reflection once a month. This week we met at the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, where Rev. Abbey Tennis led us in a meditative self-examination that is part of the their tradition. Coming out of the meditation, which involved a careful thematic examination of the previous day’s experience, I felt mostly sadness; the exercise brought to my attention just how profoundly distracted I have felt in recent months. There are all kinds of reasonable explanations – personal and professional, external circumstances and internal tendencies – but again and again I run up against the basic problem that, so much of the time, it is just so hard to focus.

I’ve had a number of conversations about summer camp recently, and the discussions highlighted for me something that I think I’ve always known but never really stopped to examine. Summer camp parents and Jewish educators alike spend a lot of time thinking about what makes the camp experience so special for our children. What gives it such a unique power in a young person’s development that, for myself and so many others, he summer camp reverberates well into adulthood? Most often, we settle on a summer camp’s completely immersive environment as the key factor, and while that is absolutely true it also tends to lead to the conclusion that we have no effective way to bring that deep experience home with us.

As I talked with our teens last Shabbat in the library, however, a new thought came to me.  What allows kids at Camp Ramah and other Jewish educational summer camps to get fully engaged in activities like tefillah and study that, in a Hebrew school or day school setting, the same kids so often resist? Yes, camp is immersive; but beyond that camp is a place, maybe one of the only places we have left, where whatever is in front of you – an activity, a conversation, a meal or just a sunny afternoon – is literally the only thing there is for you at that moment. When it’s time for swimming, swimming is all there is; the whole edah, the whole division, is there swimming together. When it’s time for lunch, it’s only lunch. When it’s time for study, for sports, for learning, for sitting on a porch talking with a friend – in each moment there is no other place we could be, no alternative competing for our attention.

True immersion is beyond reach in “the real world.” For better or for worse, our environment is not organized around the rhythms of Jewish time. Taking Shabbat seriously inevitably means passing up other available opportunities. The time that so many of you set aside for learning – in Rabbi Stone’s morning classes, at the Lunch and Learn, on Wednesday evenings – requires letting go of something else. | Focus, on the other hand, is something each of us can cultivate for ourselves. Is it harder to muster the clarity of mind here in the city, in and among our daily responsibilities and competing interests, than at a summer camp or another retreat? | Absolutely. Is it impossible? I don’t think so – but we have to want that focus enough to make it for ourselves.  

Beyond a description of the Mishkan itself, the Torah also lays out the orientation of the Israelite camp. The Tent of Meeting and the sanctuary surrounding it were set up in the center of the camp with the tribes arranged around it, facing inward. The Mishkan offered more than a worship space; it was literally the spiritual center of the community, the direction in which each person started their day as they stepped out of their tents.[1] Each detail matters; in describing the clothes that the priests wore, this morning’s parashah emphasizes the careful preparation necessary before entering into service of God. Taken together with the Torah’s description of the Jewish people as ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,”[2] it drives home the need for each of us to take time and prepare for our own holy work – not in the narrow sense of prayer or Torah study, but properly understood as the energy we put into our relationships, the work we do in the world each day, the ways we give expression to our passions and talents.  

Wednesday evening, reflecting on my experience meditating with Rev. Tennis earlier in the day, it occurred to me that we, too, have a tradition of nightly meditation and reflection. Each time I put my kids to bed, we recite קריאת שמע על המטה, the “bedtime Shema.” But why stop there? Each of us needs, and deserves, an opportunity at the end of the day to quiet our minds, reflect on the day and put it to rest, prepare our spirit for sleep. And yet the last time I made the effort to recite קריאת שמע על המטה for myself… I can’t remember when.

I don’t have any delusions that קריאת שמע is some kind of miracle cure. Still, this week, I’m going to make an effort to spend the two minutes, after I get in bed, to recite Shema; I’m going to borrow a page from the Unitarian playbook and spend a few more minutes reflecting on the day that was; and, for myself, I’ll add on one more minute to set an intention for how I want to greet the morning.

I know, for now, what I want for that last piece: to try, in each moment, to be fully present with what that moment has to offer; and to offer back all of myself in return. It’s not going to fix everything, but it’s a start.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friedman Tetzaveh 5779        

[1] Peninim me-Shulhan Gavohah, Num. 2:2, quoting Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky.

[2] Ex. 19:6.