Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vayakhel: All the Work

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Pekudei

So this past weekend Cantor and I took our confirmation class to New York City. I’m not going to lie: It was EXAUSTING. Thank God we came home Sunday so I had Monday to recover! And yet, it was amazing; we joined up with another confirmation class from Baltimore, and we took a combined 16 kids on the subway, to delis, different synagogues for services, to a musical and various museums. And Saturday night, at Havdallah, we went around and shared our favorite part. And I started reflecting on watching these kids create community with each other, grow together, grow individually. As I was looking at these kids, who had bonded so quickly, share with each other, I felt a sense of real accomplishment.

This week, Israel completes the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, the holy place God had commanded to be built, that God may dwell within the people’s midst. In Ex. 38:22: we read that Betzalel, the chief architect, had completed the project, doing everything that God had commanded Moses. On the surface, it just means that he finished, but the Sfat Emet teaches that, in making the Mishkan, he literally did EVERYTHING commanded: all 613 commandments, both the 248 positive and 365 and negative mitzvoth. That in fulfilling this task, there was not only a sense of completeness, but of holiness.

Most of us won’t build a tabernacle, or feel ourselves filled with the chacham of God and images of fire showing us how to create sacred vessels, but it’s worth asking ourselves: what projects do we spend our energy on? Where do we put our efforts, and what of those tasks has real potential for holiness, for completeness, for shalom? Is it in the time we spend with our family, or volunteering our time toward some act of tzedakah? Is it in meaningful careers that allow us to inspire and motivate or connect with others? Or is it working with our hands to till the soil, to shape objects or capture the world around us through photograph or canvas? Or, are we blessed to discover that every act we perform—from reading the paper to working with those around us to even shopping and cleaning—is filled with their own sense of holiness?  That might sound funny to us, but that’s clearly what the s’fat emet is trying to tell us: that every act has the potential to fulfill every one of the 613 mitzvot, that no matter how mundane or silly the activity, every act has the potential to deepen our connection to God, our fellow and the world around us.

So the next time you find yourself surrounded by a pile of parts, or the remains of a school project, or the next time we have a severe case of the Mondays at work or in our errand running, let’s take a deep breath, and strive to be like Betzalel, finding the holiness in the work around us. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Brickner 2014, Ki Tissa And the Work

Today I returned home from the Pearlstone Retreat Center and the Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Fellow program. Despite having to cut it short due to weather, it was an amazing three-and-a-half-days of study, prayer, bonding with colleagues, learning from Tsvi Blanchard and exploring how to meaningfully improve my Social Justice and Advocacy work was nourishing and challenging in the best sense of the word.

I'm hoping to share more after I've processed a little bit. For now, I'll share with you the d'var torah I wrote intended for tomorrow (gave it today instead).

The Eternal One Spoke to Moses: See I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur of the Tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft." (Ex. 31:1ff)

R. Johanan said: There are three things which the Holy One, Blessed Be, proclaims exclusively, namely: famine, plenty, and a good leader. "Famine" as it is written: The Eternal has called for famine. "Plenty", as it is written: I will call for the corn and will increase it. "A good leader", as it is written: The Eternal One Spoke to Moses: See I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri (ibid). --Bavli Berachot 55a

When I first read this midrash, I thought, "well, that's depressing", especially if we think of ideas like famine and plenty as reward and punishment (I'll let you decide where to place leadership).

However, I think there's another way to look at this, which is that there are things, like lack and plenty, that are out of our control. There is tremendous lack in the world, for no cause of their own. Likewise, many of us have experienced tremendous privilege, equally unearned. Too often we look at a person's situation and assume they earned or deserved it (good and bad), when in truth both were out of anyone's control.

What we can control is our actions, what we do in response. Many of us were gifted with skills and abilities, and we chose--or felt called--to use those skills to respond to that lack in the world, to encourage others to share their resources with those in need.

We are faced with famine and plenty. We have been singled out--by our communities, by our work, by our calling--to do the sacred work needed. May we be like Bezalel, filled with ruach Elohim, God's spirit, to strengthen us and guide us in our tasks.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Parashat Terumah: Withholding Our Gifts

So, did you get the phone call on Sunday? You know which one I’m talking about—the Super Sunday phone call. This Sunday may be the Superbowl, but last Sunday was Jewish Federation’s biggest solicitation day, the day when we are asked to give of ourselves—especially our treasure—to help sustain the Jewish community. 

Super Sunday reminded me of the second hardest conversation I had with my old boss, rabbi Elliot Strom. When I was a relatively new assistant rabbi my congregation needed to go into capital campaign to help pay off the mortgage, which I don’t have to tell you is the least sexy fundraising cause ever, except maybe general expenses. No new building, no endowed chair or staffer, no new initiative; just help us pay for what already is. I had been in every meeting, I saw all the spreadsheets, had done the solicitation prep with then-Bloom Consulting, and I was kind of excited to get the experience of doing a campaign and help support my synagogue. And then Elliot sat down with me for one of our regular breakfast meetings, and told me that Marisa and I had to commit to the campaign ourselves. He told me about what he and his wife Susan would be contributing, and how he felt that all the staff, especially clergy, needed to contribute meaningfully.
So here I am, at age 28, getting The Schnorr. And I was DEEPLY uncomfortable. Not because of the costs—yeah, we were young, but the number (which we honored in full before we left) wasn’t going to break us. Not because of the need—I thought of myself as a charitable guy, and got the importance of tzedakah. But the idea that my boss was asking me to give back to the synagogue made me prickly. 

Does this sound familiar? I know a lot of Jews who are uncomfortable talking about charitable giving, at least to the Jewish community. We talk about our gifts to Heifer International, to B Positive, to St. Baldrick’s, to our political parties and candidates (though we get a little tired of the robo-calls), but somehow, we get all of a dither when we talk about giving within the community—to the JCC, Federation, the synagogue, United Jewish Appeal, whatever. And we really get worked up when it isn’t just a theoretical conversation, but someone approaches us. “The only time the synagogue (or Jewish Family Services, or the Kutz Home) ever reaches out to me is when they want to ask me for money!” Never mind the letters and phone calls and personal contacts. Never mind that’s really the only time we hear from Public radio, say, or the museum. That’s the perception, though it’s articulated by a very small and vocal handful. Somehow, this voluntary gift to the Jewish community for many doesn’t feel so voluntary. It doesn’t matter if we talk to professional fundraisers or our fellow community members, whether we’re asked to give $18 or $1800, whether it’s for education or maintenance or Israel or a special project at home. If it’s the Jewish community asking for money, many of us hyperventilate. 

This week we read parashat terumah, where God asks Israel to bring freewill offerings—terumah-- of Gold, precious gems, expensive fibers, in order to build the Mishkan.  God says, “make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” And we’re told later on, in parashat Pekudei, that they collected so much Moses actually had to turn down donations. All this only a few weeks after Liberation from slavery! And every Jewish professional and board member has a good laugh! Who ever heard of such a thing?
I think there is frequently a disconnect when it comes to giving. As Jordan Cohen writes: “Anyone who has ever sat on a synagogue [board], school [board] or other non-profit board knows how important fund-raising is. Without that kind of important support, these significant institutions would not exist. But they also know how difficult it is. Convincing people to part with their hard-earned funds to support even a worthy institution is, understandably, not easy.” I think some of that disconnect is that we expect the Temple—this holy place—to be above that. We don’t want to associate our coming to synagogue with money. And how many times I’ve heard stories of pain from people, either feeling (or being told) that they couldn’t be a part of the congregation due to finances, or older congregants who remember aliyahs and honors auctioned off in the middle of services! Contrast this with many churches, where folks bring their pledge envelope on Sunday and deposit it each week. A friend who’s a deacon told me that about his church and I nearly fell out of my chair. What do you mean you bring it in on Sunday and give it where everyone can see?! When I explained our system of making an annual commitment and sending a bill, he nearly fell out of his chair! You bill people?! 

And, of course, too often the language that we use to describe our commitment to the synagogue in particular is transactional, rather than transformative. We talk about what we’re paying for—programs, services, education, life cycle. When we give gifts to our friends or family, we’re not thinking about what we’re going to get out of it (well, at least I hope!). We give that card, that dinner, that snarky t-shirt, that bauble because of our relationship with the person; it brings each of us pleasure to share freely with one another. Why shouldn’t it be that way with the synagogue? 

God asks, and the people give freely. They give to create sacred space, to put their wealth toward the use of the community. Please note, they’re not making a house for God—it doesn’t say, “make for me a sanctuary so I can dwell in it”, but rather, ‘so I can dwell among them!’ Okay, well, if we’re not building a house for God, what are we doing? 

What we’re doing is using our wealth—be it limited or unfathomable—for sacred ends. When we’re asked to make a commitment, when we share what we have, we’re sustaining community, but also allowing for sacred work to happen, and happen well. They give because that’s the relationship. And, dare I say it? it gives us a chance to think about how we’re using our treasure, not just from a practical budgeting perspective, but from a sacred perspective as well. Is my wealth being used to make this world a more sacred place? 

 I’m sure some of you are uncomfortable by this talk of money, giving, and the Jewish community. And some of you maybe even steaming that I brought it up at all, and on Shabbat no less. And others are wondering why this is even a big deal at all. To be honest, I’m uncomfortable too, but we need to talk about it and think about it. Because if we take seriously the idea that all we do has sacred purpose, has meaning, has import, then that must extend to our wealth as well. Only when we let God into every aspect of our lives, then God can fully dwell among us.