Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hiding Under the Table?

It became clear to me when I saw the hole in the wooden table. While visiting the New Museum downtown on Bowery this week, a museum which features contemporary art, I saw one work called Scratching the Table Surface and Something More. And that’s what it was – a table with a hole scratched into it. But when I saw it, I understood something more.

This morning’s Torah reading, Vayakhel and Pekudei, essentially repeat two earlier sections, Terumah and Tetzaveh: they contain a description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its vessels and the priestly garments, and many have wondered why. Some note a difference in order: in the first blueprint, the vessels come first, and the structure only later, while in this morning’s floor plan, the structure is primary, and the vessels follow. Certainly after last week’s golden calf debacle, the Jews are beginning to understand that context is what makes one golden vessel a vehicle for Divine worship, and another such vessel simple idolatry. Others offer this week’s portion as a re-start button. While God had promised to dwell in the midst of the nation before the golden calf incident, God must reassure the people in its aftermath with a repeat performance.

But the hole in the table tells a different story: it emphasizes process. As it happens, the hole was made by a man scratching the table with his fingernail for several moments each day over the course of two years. How it was made – rather than what it actually is – defines the piece (which is consistent with the goals of contemporary art in general). In stark contrast to last week’s portion, where Aharon claims – ואשליכהו באש ויצא העגל הזה- “I’m not sure what happened, how the golden calf was formed. I just threw the gold into the fire and, poof, out came this golden calf” – this week’s building of the Tabernacle is anything but haphazard. If Terumah/Tetzaveh tell us the what of the Tabernacle – what its dimensions should be, which materials are to be used, etc., this week, we learn about the process – how it was made – who got involved, who donated the materials, who fashioned the objects and using what talents.

The key term that appears over and over again to illustrate the process of creating the Tabernacle universe is thought – לחשוב, to think. The narrative uses it over ten times in various forms: מעשה חושב, לחשוב מחשבות, חושבי מחשבות and more. In fact, this week’s portion yields the term מלאכת מחשבת (melekhet machshevet), literally “thoughtful labor.” In explaining this phrase, some, such as the 16th century Kabbalist known as the Shnei Luchot HaBrit, suggest that these were mystical thoughts. As the women spun the thread for the Tabernacle curtains, as Bezalel and Oholiav fashioned the more solid materials, they meditated upon the metaphysical import of their activities.

But the Talmud and Onkelos choose a simpler reading. For Onkelos, this is עיבידת אומנוון (ividat umanvan), the labor of artisans, of craftsman. Machshevet means skill. And in fact, in deriving the laws of Shabbat from the construction of the Tabernacle, this very issue comes up (Chagigah 10b, Beitzah 13b). For anyone who has ever used an elbow to hit an elevator button on Shabbat in an urgent situation, melekhet machshevet has meaning. Only melekhet machshevet, things done in the proper way, in an artful way rather than sloppily, is prohibited on Shabbat – מלאכת מחשבת אסרה תורה – On Shabbat, the Torah outlawed only skilled labor. For anyone who has torn open a plastic bag of challah on Shabbat, melekhet machshevet is again at play – this is not skilled labor, or creative work, but mere destruction of materials.

Let us dwell though on a different explanation of melekhet machshevet offered by the Talmud, also in the context of Shabbat. One who slips on a banana peel and crashes into the light switch has not violated Shabbat because no melekhet machsheve has been done: the person who slipped had no intention to flip the switch (Bava Kama 26b)! Violation of Shabbat requires thought, intention to perform an action, just as the construction of the vessels in the Mishkan required thought. Unlike Aharon’s accidental creation of the calf, there is nothing accidental about this new Divine dwelling place.

While the thoughtfulness exhibited in this week’s reading seems positive, thinking can be dangerous – not because we may come to think that we know better, but because of the danger of overthinking. Overthinking – analyzing too much, making mountains out of molehills, playing and replaying dialogues or episodes in our heads. Things that seem within our grasp, so close – when we look down from that tightrope, when we overthink them, suddenly no longer seem achievable. “But how can I accomplish that? There are so many risks. There are so many challenges.” Or a conversation of several sentences may resurface repeatedly for days, leaving us wondering what another other person may think of us, when in fact that person has long since forgotten the interaction.

The good news is that we overthink less as we age. For people in their twenties and early thirties, studies  report that over 70% overthink to their own detriment. Once people reach 36, the number drops to around 50%, and for those in their sixties and seventies, the percentage is quite low. (Some might argue that they’ve earned the right to say and do whatever they want, without having to worry about it at all!) The bad news is that we all do it – exaggerating the significance of a moment, a comment, an interaction, a presentation. Rather than asking what the other person thinks, communicating, taking a plunge, we swirl around in our own consciousness trying to figure things out with no new experience, no new information.

And perhaps the worst of all – overthinking after tragedy strikes.  Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, writes:

“Many of us believe that when we feel down, we should try to focus inwardly and evaluate our feelings and our situation in order to attain self-insight and find solutions that might ultimately resolve our problems and relieve unhappiness.”

But, she argues:

“…overthinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person’s ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative. Moreover, although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their ruminations, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives.”

It is no coincidence that the most mysterious commandment in the Torah, the red heifer which we also read about this morning, deals with death. When we encounter the saddest moment of all – mortality, loss of life – we just want to grieve, to lose ourselves in our sorrow. “I am suffering. I have so much to be sad about.” And while all that is true, rather than offering a ritual that is ripe with opportunity to think, the Torah offers opaqueness. Of course we want to feel, to get in touch with our sadness, but we must not get lost there. Here is a ritual that we cannot overthink-  no room for rationalization or inner debate – it is a ritual that simply helps us move from contamination back into life. Sometimes we must do instead of think.

For all of the times the term חשב is used in this morning’s reading, how many more times do we see the term ויעש or ויעשו – he did, they did! Despite their need to contemplate the golden calf and how it had perhaps changed their relationship and the identity of this Mishkan forever, despite their desire to think, they stepped outside of themselves and they acedt; they committed themselves to creating, to moving from internal anxiety to external activity.

And towards the end of the process, Moshe witnessed this spectacular event, and he reacted:

וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקוָק, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה.

And Moshe saw all of the labor, and behold they had done it – in the way that God had commanded, they had done it. And Moshe blessed them.

They had put their fears aside, they had quieted their innver voices, and they had acted. And in truth, they did not need Moshe’s blessing at all. For this ability to carry on, to boldly place one foot in front of the other, to act, is itself a blessing.

Comments Off on Hiding Under the Table?

Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Modern Orthodoxy, Mrs. Elana Stein Hain, parsha


The Blessing and the Burden of Memories

Jews are used to being told to live with contradictions, but it is hard to think of one quite so blatant, so difficult, as in the special reading that we leined this shabbat morning for Parshat Zachor:

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt;


תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם

You shall erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven

Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings puts it as follows:

מצות עשה לאבד זכר עמלק שנאמר תמחה את זכר עמלק ומצות עשה לזכור תמיד מעשיו הרעים

There is a positive commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek […] and a positive commandment to constantly remember their wicked deeds.

So which is it? Are we supposed to remember, or to erase the memory?

And before we try and answer the question, lets broaden it. When a student at Yeshiva University wrote an article entitled “Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust” in which he wrote the following, was he correct?

“Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.”

He caused an outpouring of anger, but does he have a point (even if clumsily made)?

How do we live Jewish lives not burdened by persecution? Can we,should we, live in the sunlight?

In “What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank”, Nathan Englander discusses the concept of never forgetting, of asking about every gentile one meets: “Would this one save us, would this one shelter us?”

Do we construct a Jewish identity, a self-image, based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust? Is our message to the next generation “Live as Jews because so many were killed for being Jews?” Is that a compelling argument, or an unacceptable burdening of guilt, a robbing of innocence?

So what is it supposed to be?

Zachor or timcheh? Remember or erase memory?

I want to explain what the mitzvah to destroy Amalek involves.

From a grammatical point of view it seems that the zecher Amalek, is an association. Technically, “timcheh et zecher amalek” means “destroy the things associated with Amalek”. Not only the people, but also, the animals, the possessions, anything that invokes, or that can be associated with, having to be to do with Amalek.

And, indeed, whenever the moral challenge of this mitzvah is pointed out, often an important fact is omitted. It is the view of the Rambam, Maimonides, that the mitzvah of obliterating Amalek is not about genocide, rather it is about reform.

Again in the Laws of Kings we find his ruling:

אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם עד שקוראין לו שלום

One does not wage war on anyone until we first offer them peace.

And he goes on to apply this rule explicityly to the nation of Amalek

כן הוא אומר בעמלק תמחה את זכר עמלק. ומנין שאינו מדבר אלא באלו שלא השלימו שנאמר לא היתה עיר אשר השלימה אל בני ישראל

So it says regarding Amalek : “Erase the memory of Amalek”. And from where do we know that this applies only to those who do not make peace with us […].

But how can this be sustained when the Torah itself says destroy Amalek? That the mitzvah is conditional, that a peace treaty is also a possibility?

The Kesef Mishnah, Rav Yosef Caro (also the author of the Shulchan Aruch) explains Maimonides ruling:

שאם קבלו עליהם שבע מצות הרי יצאו מכלל שבעה עממין ומכלל עמלק והרי הם כבני נח הכשרים

Once they stop behaving like Amalek, and they accept the rules of ethics and monotheism, they are yatzu miclal Amalek. They are now kosher – like the best of the gentile world.

It’s a remarkable ruling, but it’s the ruling of Maimonides. What is objectionable, what is to be destroyed about Amalek, is their deeds, their hatred. If they relinquish that, then they are no longer Amalek.

When Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the name of his father and grandfather, said that Amalek exists today, that any time a nation arises to destroy the Jewish people, that is an embodiment of Amalek, I believe he was referring to this idea.

What is dangerous, evil about Amalek is not their sheep and cows, not anything with a label signaling it as Amalekite. What is evil is the idea, the hatred, the irrational all consuming detestation for the Jewish people that exists. And when we encounter that, we encounter Amalek.

It is not that we have a mitzvah, G-d forbid, to kill (except for self-preservation). What we have is a mitzvah to ensure the destruction and ending of those ideas. As long as that exists, those hatreds, those obsessions with harming the Jewish people, then the Torah commands us loud and clear: Zachor et asher asah licha amalek, Don’t forget what Amalek did to you. You cant forget, because you cannot afford to forget.

This, I think, is where, not just one misguided (and I am sure by now repentant) student at Yeshiva University, but so much of the Jewish world, gets it wrong.

We cannot “get over” the Holocaust, because the Holocaust could happen again. We cannot “get over” anti-Semitsim, because anti-Semitism has never gone away. And we cannot let down our guard, because there are people who would not hesitate to harm us in the worst possible way.

What is anti-Semitism? Why does it survive, like a mutating germ, adapting to new surroundings, new terminology, but still the same poison that has existed for thousands of years?

Why do people who have never met a Jew, in far flung places in Europe and elsewhere, who look out of their windows and see unemployment, poverty and deprivation on their own doorstop, decide that the most pressing issue for them is to boycott Israel?

How can otherwise intelligent college kids, look at the massacre of innocents that has been going on for months in Syria and decide the real morally troubling part of the middle east is Israel, and hold ‘Israel apartheid week’, seeing that the freest and most protected Arab population in the middle east lives in Israel?

I don’t look for anti-Semitism and I am not paranoid. If I get bad service in a store, I don’t assume its because I am Jewish. If Israel is occasionally criticized, that is not always anti-Semitism.

But when it is out of all proportion … when it is, as it is for millions of people, an obsession, an irrational hatred … when trade unions and church groups all over the world, and increasingly in America, wish to boycott Israel (and Israel alone) … there is no other explanation. It is anti-Semitism.

We forget that at our peril. We have a duty to remember.

This past week there was a conference in the Arab city of Doha. It was sponsored by the Arab league. It was called International Conference for Defense of Jerusalem.

The Arab League was kind enough to invite some Jewish representatives. One, a representative of American Friends of Peace Now, wrote a column after the first day of the conference. She was surprised – shocked in fact – that almost none of the speakers at this conference believed that the Jews had any legitimate claim to Jerusalem at all, any authentic connection.

She wrote:

“All throughout the day, it was unfortunately the same story. Participants talked about Jerusalem as if Jewish history did not exist or was a fraud — as if all Jewish claims in the city were just a tactic to dispossess Palestinians.”

What should be sad to us is not just the sentiments expressed in Doha, but the knowledge that this flat out rejection of peace, rewriting of history, naked anti-Semitism, should be, in any way, a surprise to anyone.

When we, in our longing for peace, which is laudable, forget how irrationally obsessed so much of the world is with destroying Israel … when we fail to realize that our liberal tendencies cannot deal with the irrationality and venom of the hatred against Israel … we are forgetting that which the Torah says must be remembered.

We must not forget, because these are powerful forces, and to forget is to endanger ourselves.

There is, if not Amalek, a zecher Amalek, of a much greater dimension and threat. And that is Iran.

[And I know that all over the country this Shabbat Zachor, rabbis, who are, as is well known, experts on everything strategic, military and political … who see classified intelligence and are the best qualified to express exactly what Netanyahu and Obama need to do to Iran … Rabbis will be speaking about Iran. I have to confess that my certitude has failed me. I am not even remotely qualified to say what should be done. We have to pray to G-d that he is with our leaders because $5 a gallon for gas will be the least of our problems if one false move is made.]

But I have a different point. The danger Iran poses is being debated politically, but I do not feel it in the room. We hear about the threat, the rhetoric, the danger – but how are we sleeping at night? Where are the heartfelt prayers, the tears? I address myself first and foremost.

This is about more than politics – more than AIPAC and JStreet, Bibi and Obama. It’s about zachor et asher asa licha amalek, a threat of a contemporary Haman: “liharog ulihabed […} minashim ad taf”, to destroy us all; men, women and children.

If we aren’t sick to our hearts, it is because we don’t understand what it is that we are up against, and how much we need rachamei shamayim, mercy from above.

We live in a world where we have to remember Amalek, because Amalek has not forgotten about us. It is not the ideal, it’s not what we want. It would be great to be able to “get over” it all, but we dare not. Not now, not yet.

There is a remarkable commentary by Rabeinu Bachaye, a Spanish medieval commentator and great kabbalist:

והפרשה הזו התחילה בזכרון וסיימה בשכחה, להורות שעתיד זכרם להשתכח מן העולם, וזה בזמן המשיח

The Torah reading of Amalek opens with the word “remember” but ends with the word “forget”, to teach that, in the future, the memory of Amalek will be forgotten from the world – in the days of the Messiah.

Ultimately, the contradiction between being commanded to remember, and the command to obliterate the memory, cannot stand. And it will be resolved in forgetting.

The Torah commands us to remember Amalek. We should hold on to the memory in order that, one day soon, all the hatred, all of the obsession with trying to destroy us, will be erased. Until then, every mitzvah we do –  every Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv that we recite, every page of Torah we learn – is dedicated to that goal of bringing the days of Messiah, when we, and the whole world, will live in peace and security. May we merit to see them soon.

Comments Off on The Blessing and the Burden of Memories

Posted by on March 4, 2012 in current affairs, Modern Orthodoxy, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


Tags: , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: