Author Archives: esteinhain

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.

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


Columbia University, Efron the Hittite and a Matter of Perspective

I don’t know if people have been following the homophone of the week: The band got banned.

Apparently Columbia’s marching band has been suspended from playing at the final football game of the season because, last game, they changed the lyrics of the school fight song from, “Roar, Lions, Roar” to “Lose, Lions, Lose.” Now, they did have a point. After all, the Columbia Lions football team does have 9 losses this season and 9 fewer wins. And, of course, I take some delight in the fact that this may be one of the only schools where the band makes fun of the jocks. But still, I couldn’t believe that students would mock other students that way – people who practice for hours each week, even if they are unsuccessful. That was my read on the situation, until I spoke with a Columbia student this week.

Oddly, the conversation brought me to today’s parsha. The parsha opens with an important exchange of property, an exchange so significant that it leads hundreds of people to flock to Hebron each year for Parshat Chaye Sarah, an exchange so significant that it is mentioned at the very beginning of the Gemara Kiddushin to teach us some halacha about acquisitions. I refer, of course, to the exchange between Avraham and Efron in which Avraham buys the Cave of Machpelah and the land around it.

The way we are usually taught this story is as follows: Poor Avraham, he had nowhere to bury Sarah, and he went to the Hittites, the bnei Chet, to ask for a plot of land. And of course, being the honest and genuine person that he was, he offered to pay. “No, please, we’ll give it to you for free.” But he insisted and bowed to them and called himself a stranger – self-effacing, humble, meek. And then, of course, he was squeezed privately by Efron for every penny and more. Poor Avraham, tsk, tsk.

But that may be a mistaken reading.

After all, there are some questions here: Why does Avraham go to the whole group of bnei Chet and only later ask for Efron? I don’t know about you, but when I buy property, הלואי (if only!), I don’t go to all of the tenants in the building, ask them for the property and then ask them to introduce me to the landlord. I go straight to the landlord. Avraham clearly knew Efron’s name. Why not go straight to him?

But more to the point, let’s see what Avraham actually said to the Hittite people:

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי, עִמָּכֶם; תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם, וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי.

I am a wanderer and a resident among you; please give me a burial plot among you, and I shall bury my dead.

What about the money? If Avraham is so intent on paying for this, why doesn’t he mention that? He asks for a gift, and only once he is told that he can have it, does he say, okay, I want to pay for it.

We tend to read Avraham in this scenario with the principle of “charity.” This term, coined (pun intended) by Willard Van Orman Quine, an early 20th century philosopher, means that when a person says something that contradicts his/her earlier statements or is simply nonsensical, we strive to find a reading that makes sense, a charitable reading. We do this all the time. In fact, Rabbi Ausubel suggested to me that this is similar to auto-correct on the computer or the phone. You were trying to say x, but made a mistake, and the technology figures out how to read your words sensibly.

Why did Avraham go to the whole tribe of Hittites? Says the Rashbam: in the ancient world, when buying a burial plot, one needed the permission of the whole tribe. And Ramban explains that Avraham could not just walk up to Efron, Efron was a high profile man. Avraham needed someone to get him an audience with Efron. But furthermore, and here is the charitable reading, Avraham does not misrepresent his interests; he did not mean “give” for free, he meant “give” for a price, but he will cherish it as though it were a gift. Avraham is totally consistent.

We have a family friend who is a high profile criminal defense attorney. He tells us that he opens every argument with the following story:

A vegetable vendor with a horse-drawn cart is moving his good around the streets, when suddenly his cart is knocked over by a passing carriage. Everything is a mess – the horse is down, the vendor is down, and the vegetables are strewn everywhere. His produce is ruined. So, of course, he sues. In the courtroom, the defense calls the police officer who had been the first responder. And they ask, “When you found the plaintiff, what did he tell you?” “He said, I’m okay. I’m okay.” Everyone is puzzled. The plaintiff then takes the stand, and is asked, “How do you respond to what the police officer said? He said that you claimed to be fine when he arrived?” “Well, you have to understand. Let me paint a picture. The vegetables were everywhere, I was down on the ground, my horse was down, and even a dog had gotten caught in the accident and was lying down whimpering. With his gun out of his holster, the officer walks up to the dog, gives it a kick – Are you okay? – No response, so he shoots the dog. He goes over to my horse, nudges him with his arm – Are you okay? -No response, so he shoots the horse. The officer comes up to me, puts his hand on my shoulder, and I scream, ‘I’m fine! I’m fine!’”

Some (notably, Rabbi Yonatan Grossman of Migdal Oz) follow in the footsteps of the Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, in saying that actually Avraham did misrepresent himself. He came forward and said, “Please give me land; I am in an urgent situation of bereavement and have nowhere else to turn,” and when they said “yes” because how could they turn him away in such straits, he said, “Okay, well then, can I buy it?” If they are willing to give it for free, surely they are willing to let him buy it! But of course they did not want him to buy it. What sovereign tribe wants an outsider purchasing their land and removing it from their possession? It’s the way of the world, throughout history, and unfortunately today it is happening in parts of the world we care about deeply. No, the Hittites will let him use the land, but not buy it – they wanted to do him a favor, to have him beholden to them, not to have independent ownership of their land. So they appear gracious, “Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly take money.” But he bows to them, “I am no threat, I am at your mercy, I am merely a wanderer, I insist on paying.” And when Efron shows up, he does not want to sell the land to Avraham either, so he feigns magnanimity – “I’ll even throw in the field around the cave, that’s how kind we are to you.” And Avraham sees his chance, “Wonderful, so then I should be able to buy the field as well!” And then Efron takes him aside – apparently, his greed leads him not just to take advantage of Avraham’s willingness to pay; his greed leads him to betray his own tribe – “Okay, you can buy it, but ביני ובינך, just between us, don’t tell anyone. I’ll give you the deed to the land.” And then, what does Avraham do? In the next two psukim, Avraham gives him the money IN FRONT OF EVERYONE so that the Hittites would know that Avraham now owned a piece of land.

When I spoke to a Columbia student this week about the band, she said, “What if I told you that the football team and the band planned it together as a publicity stunt. Would that change your perspective?” “Sure.” “Well, anyway, that’s not what happened, but it’s good food for thought.”

There’s more than one way to read a situation. We often look for Avraham to be meek, to be the victim, almost the nebuch just keeping his head down and doing the right thing. But sometimes “reading with charity” turns people into charity cases. We miss Avraham’s negotiating tactics, his brilliant diplomatic acumen. It is Avraham who wins the day here; he is manipulating the situation.

Sometimes when we jump to the most obvious reading, we miss the most obvious and critical point. If only we would take a step back and re-evaluate, consider a different perspective, perhaps we would see something else. And more important than doing this in the case of text, is being able to do this in real life.

Shabbat Shalom


Posted by on November 19, 2011 in current affairs, Mrs. Elana Stein Hain, parsha

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