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Vayakhel 5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

03/11/2024 02:40:54 PM


Boundaries and What They Protect

The morning of August 11, 2008 began like any other. Sara went to a routine prenatal exam and I drove to Princeton to spend the day unpacking boxes in our new home. Minutes after I arrived in Princeton Sara called me from her doctor’s office: something was not quite right and our twins would need to be delivered that day. 

“Should I come right now and meet you?” I asked. Sara explained that there was a medical need for a six hour delay before the twins could be delivered and I should spend another hour or two unpacking boxes before meeting her in the hospital.

If you were in that situation, which boxes would you unpack? Linens? Clothing? Pots, pans and dishes?

I decided that I should use my limited time that day to unpack the first of our boxes of sefarim. We had, even then, so many books of Torah scholarship and they occupied so many boxes, I thought it would be the best use of time to put them away. After all, we were moving to Princeton to provide religious guidance and Jewish education to students there. How could we undertake that task until our books were unpacked and our bookshelves were organized?

Needless to say, weeks later when we finally got around to unpacking the rest of our home, Sara was surprised by my choice of which boxes to unpack first. 

This story illustrates a question that hovers over the final parshiot and chapters of Sefer Shemot. What is most important when constructing and furnishing a structure? Is it the walls, or is it the things that are placed inside the walls?

The parshiot of Terumah and Tetzaveh contain God’s commands to build the Mishkan and the pashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei at the end of Sefer Shemot contain the implementation of that command under the leadership of Betzalel. It can seem repetitive. Even Rashi, whose medieval Torah commentary finds meaning and significance in every verse of the Torah, leaves verse after verse of Vayakhel and Pekudei without comment. “I already told you what these words mean,” Rashi says, “the first time they appeared in Terumah or Teztaveh.”

But the implementation of the command is not identical to the command itself as the Torah describes it; the order in which the mishkan and its furnishings are to be made is seemingly different from the order in which they are made. In Parashat Terumah the Torah instructs us to build an Ark and other furnishings of the mishkan and only afterwards to build the mishkan itself. When the mishkan was built, the walls were built first, creating the courtyards into which the Ark and other furnishings are placed. 

The Talmud, in Berachot 55a, notes the wisdom that Betzalel displayed in the ways that he implemented Moshe’s instructions for the Mishkan.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Bezalel was called by that name on account of his wisdom:

אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמֹשֶׁה: לֵךְ אֱמוֹר לוֹ לִבְצַלְאֵל ״עֲשֵׂה לִי מִשְׁכָּן אָרוֹן וְכֵלִים״. הָלַךְ מֹשֶׁה וְהָפַךְ וְאָמַר לוֹ: ״עֲשֵׂה אָרוֹן וְכֵלִים וּמִשְׁכָּן״?

“When the Holy Blessed One said to Moshe: Go say to Bezalel, “Make a mishkan, an ark, and vessels” (see Exodus 31:7–11), Moses went and reversed the order and told Bezalel: “Make an ark, and vessels, and a mishkan” (see Exodus 25–26). Betzalel then responded to Moshe...the standard practice throughout the world is that a person builds a house and only afterward places the furnishings inside the house, and you say to me: Make an ark, and furnishings, and only then make a mishkan. If I do so in the order you have commanded, the furnishings that I make, where shall I put them? Perhaps God told you the following: “Make a mishkan, ark, and vessels” (see Exodus 36). Moses said to Bezalel: Perhaps you were in God’s shadow [betzel- El], and you knew precisely what God said. You intuited God’s commands just as He stated them, as if you were there.”

Left unsaid in this Talmudic passage, which is quoted by Rashi in his Torah commentary, is an answer to the question of why Moshe deviated from God’s commands when he gave instructions to build the mishkan. God said to first build the mishkan’s walls and only later to build the items that went inside. Moshe switched the order! And left unsaid is an answer to the question of how precisely did Betzalel intuit that Moshe’s original instructions from God must have been different from what had been told to him. 

I’ll tell you the answer:

Moshe believed that which is most important should be prioritized in time. Betzalel knew to create a secure place in order to create a sacred space. Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moshe was the quintessential educator and a man of truth par excellence. The telos of the Mishkan, its purpose, was to house the Ark, the depository of the Tablets of the Law, and to be a location for God’s communication with Israel. So that is what Moshe spoke about first.

Betzalel knew that  sacred spaces need borders to delineate and differentiate the sacred from the mundane and to provide protection. Where could the Ark be placed if there were no walls marking its location?

As you may imagine, both Moshe and Betzalel are correct. Nothing of transcendent value can be built until there is a secure and clearly defined space for it to be placed. And, there is no point in building walls to protect a space, if you don’t put something inside of transcendent value.

For three weeks this winter I taught a series of classes here at Ohev on the History of American Modern Orthodoxy and some of the developments, religious debates and internal polemics that have shaped our community. I scheduled these classes shortly after the Ohev board tasked me with devising a process to guide the community towards making a decision about whether or not to rent space in the Ohev building to Minyan Ro’eh, the “partnership minyan” that has met, on and off in Shepherd Park for the past decade or so.

I could not imagine guiding the community in making a decision this spring about this question given that you and I have known each other for such a short amount of time and we have never had an occasion to talk about some of the most relevant facets for considering this question.

The series on the history of Modern Orthodoxy did not end with any clear conclusions and I did not offer any predictions for the future but, in the aftermath of the last class, a few things became clear to me.

Years ago, we debated which form of Judaism would prove to be authentic and survive and which forms of Judaism would not be able to replicate themselves. But in a post-modern world, it is hard to imagine the existence of any narrative that could unite faithful Jews at any time in the future. There is no dustbin of history for wrong ideas and there is no mantlepiece of history for the right ideas. Many ideas and many narratives have enough momentum and vitality to replicate themselves into the upcoming  generations. This means that Orthodoxy does not have to be exclusively “right” or claim that alternatives are “wrong” in order to carve a distinct space for itself in the landscape of American Judaism.

Years ago, we spoke of “Halakhah” and commitment to Halakhah as a distinguishing marker of our community. But the democratization of knowledge has allowed many people to do their own research and to speak, with credibility,  in the name of halakhah. And so the debate about what should be considered acceptable Orthodox practice has moved on to a much less substantial debate about which scholars are qualified to ascertain halakhah. Instead of debating issues we debate personalities. Instead of cultivating loyalty to Halakhah, we cultivate allegiance to the authority of our community’s leaders. To an extent, this is unavoidable. The Torah can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways and there is no way for us all to eat together or even to observe holidays at the same time or have any common religious life without some way for certain opinions and interpretations becoming normative and authoritative. 

That three-part series came to an end. This past Wednesday, Sara and I taught about women and the mitzvah of kiddush. Next week we will explore women and keri’at ha-torah (the core halakhic question of Partnership Minyanim). Sara and I will teach about women and megilah reading just in time for Purim and we will conclude this current series with a shiur on women and the recitation of mourners kaddish.

For each shiur we will share and explain the primary sources and texts that frame the halakhic discussion of the topic, and I will also share my own perspective on how someone might navigate that halachic issue as a contemporary Jew navigating a diverse Jewish community. 

In the final shiur on the history of American Modern Orthodoxy, I shared how troubled I was that so many boundary questions within contemporary Orthodoxy are negotiated around gender and sexuality, and in particular about what women do in public. Just four years ago, as we were poised to  read these final parshiot of Sefer Shemot, the Covid crisis presented a possibility for a different sort of Modern Orthodox identity. We, heroically, closed our shuls before the government asked us to do so because Modern Orthodoxy embraces the truths of medical science, and we reopened our shuls to in-person tefilah as soon as we were told that it was safe to do so because we appreciate the existential human need for community and we understand that community requires proximity. I thought, for  a few precious months, that the Covid crisis represented Modern Orthodoxy’s finest moment. As the Covid crisis moved into its second year, however, I saw less and less to be proud of and my hopes for a positive Modern Orthodox identity were unmet. 

The exchange between Moshe and Betzalel continues to be relevant. Boundaries are necessary for any community to have a distinct identity and to make a distinct contribution to the world.  But boundaries are never sufficient. We have to speak first and speak longer about the ideas and values that animate our communal life. (Unpack the sefarim first!) This too is a message of the Mishkan. The goal of the mishkan was not a house for God. God does not need a house and God cannot be contained by any house. Rather, the goal of the project of building the mishkan and using it to serve God, was to bring God’s presence into the community itself. “V’shachanti b’tocham” God told us. “I will dwell in their midst.”

Many of you have written to me or had meetings with me to share your opinions on the question of renting space to Minyan Ro’eh (and the rest of you are welcome to do so as well). It is also rumored that many of you are discussing this question among yourselves. I don’t know what you are saying to each other, but I'm comfortable being transparent about what you are saying to me. Every single one of you, no matter your opinion on this question, has told me how much you respect the shul’s Orthodox identity, and every single one of you, has shared your appreciation for our community’s unique tradition of promoting a progressive halakhic agenda of inclusion and empowerment. Every person who has spoken to me has told me that you want to see this community strong and united and cohesive. 

When you interviewed me last winter I told you  that I do not see any halakhic impediment to renting space to Minyan Ro’eh in the Ohev building. But there are pragmatic decisions that will need to be made about building use, and there are decisions that will need to be made about the boundaries of our community and what practices come into our literal walls and which are kept outside.

But boundaries only matter if they define a space where something of value is happening. Whatever decision ends up being made, I want you to understand how much you share and how much you have in common. And for that reason I am not as scared of this decision as I was just a few months ago.

Let’s unpack the sefarim first and cultivate and celebrate a proactive and positive vision of Modern Orthodoxy. When we debate the boundaries of Orthodoxy, let’s always do so with Torah study at the core of our deliberations. When we uncover differences of opinion about some creative or experimental ritual practice let’s be sure to always set aside that debate when our neighbor needs a shivah meal delivered or someone to stand beside her while she says kaddish at a parent’s yahrzeit. Every community needs to establish its boundaries. But a community is defined by what it places at the center. If we can place Torah study, fervent prayer, and kindness at the center of our community, then wherever we make our walls, God’s presence can dwell among us.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784