D’Var Torah for Sisterhood Shabbat Morning Service
Saturday, February 8, 2014
Shabbat Shalom, and welcome to the service led by Women of Reform Judaism. It was chaired and organized for the fifth year in a row by Liza Robbins Theuman. Thank you so much, Liza, for the countless hours you devoted to the success of this service.
Thank you also to all of the other members who made this morning happen, they are listed in the program. Special thanks to Gene Spiro and Julia Walsh for leading us in music, to Jill Kravetz and Barbara Baron for overseeing the Kiddush to which all of you are invited, and to Athene Goldstein, Rabbi Gutterman, and Keri Berger for their guidance and support.
Last week’s portion, T’rumah, dealt with instructions for building the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. Also referred to as the Mishkan, this portable shrine was not meant as a place of assembly for all of the Israelites, rather it was conceived of as an elaborate and costly residence for the divine presence. According to The Women’s Torah Commentary, it was off limits to all but the upper echelons of the priesthood … and for the Israelites, in contrast to the surrounding cultures, the priesthood did not include women.
This week, in T’tzavveh, we are given equally detailed instructions about the vestments to be worn by the priests. The portion opens with instructions about providing the oil for the light.
In Exodus 27, verse 20, we read: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting …”
While mention of involvement of all of “the Israelites” does not specifically name women, The Women’s Torah Commentary suggests that woman were the producers of the oil. The commentary explains that “beaten oil” might better be translated as “crushed oil”, a liquid that was obtained by placing the olives into a depression of a stone basin and pounding them with a rock. Because the technology of producing olive oil was similar to the grinding of grain for bread, which was done entirely by women, and women may have produced stone tools of this sort, the preparation of olive oil was likely a woman’s task. When we read any text we need to understand it in its historical context!
It is interesting that God does not address Moses by name, neither in the opening line nor in any other part of this portion, but is very specific about the priests. In Chapter 28, verses 1 – 3 we read:
“You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar , the sons of Aaron. Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments.”
Again, The Women’s Torah Commentary tells us, “all who are skillful … it is clear that female artisans are involved. ‘Skillful’ is literally ‘wise at heart’. In Israelite society, artisans were held in higher esteem than manual laborers; and their ability to apply unusual talent to create beautiful items was attributed to God”.
The text then lists the vestments, in verse 4, as “a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash …” and continues with very detailed instructions about each item.
Clearly, appearance is important to God. Looking good elevates our sense of awareness and our presence at special occasions.
T’tzaveh concludes with equally specific directions concerning the installation of the priests and the sacrifices to be made at that celebration.
The Tabernacle was the abode of God’s presence while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. It was replace by the Temple in Yerushalaim, where the altar for sacrifices still had its place.
About 2000 years ago, that Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were no longer made, and the priests lost their role. Ultimately, the Israelites were dispersed into the four corners of the earth and ever since, we have worshiped in stuebles in shtetls and in magnificent synagogues throughout the world.
So what does T’tzaveh have to say to us today? The stuebles and shtetls are gone and so are many of the great synagogues of Europe. They became victims of the destruction that ravaged the continent more than 75 years ago.
The lights may have been dimmed, by that catastrophe but they were not entirely extinguished! After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jews, who hardly remembered their heritage, especially in the Former Soviet Union, are discovering the sparks of Judaism deep inside their souls. They are ready to reclaim their ancient faith and to rebuild their houses of worship. At the recent Biennial in San Diego, the World Union of Reform Judaism, the international representative of the Reform movement, featured the Jewish community in Ukraine. With the current political turmoil in that country, we have to be concerned about our sisters and brothers in those fledgling locales and can only pray for their welfare and continued progress.
Many Jews have left Former Soviet Union countries, resettling in Israel, in the United States, including here in Rochester, and in Germany. Yes, Germany. The influx of mostly Russian immigrants has infused the once dying Jewish community in Germany with new life and the need for new houses of worship. Creative architecture has been used to deal with security issues. Samples are the orthodox synagogue Ohel Yacov in Munich and the new synagogue in Mainz. Yes, that Mayence mentioned in the High Holy Day Prayer book, a city where Jews settled during the time of the Roman Empire. The exterior is a mostly stone structure in the heart of the old city, the interior is an airy multi-use house of assembly.
Our own TBK congregation established a relationship with the small congregation in Hameln, Germany. The town is famous for the story of the rat catcher, but also through the memoir of Glueckl Hameln. Her diary allows us wonderful insights into Jewish life in the 1700’s.
Some of you may remember their president, Rachel Dohme, and her daughter Rebekah with the wonderful voice, who visited us in November 2008. Almost three years ago the congregation moved into their own building. It was erected on the site of the original synagogue that was destroyed during Kristallnacht. During Kiddush take a look at the latest newsletter from this congregation. They are thrilled to be in their own home with the light of a modern Ner Tamid shining above – and they are actively participating in interfaith relations in their region.
A few years ago, their students created a textbook that is used in public schools to educate young Germans about Judaism. They are truly a light to the nation.
T’tzavveh might also serve as a reminder of the “dignity and adornment” of our own attire. The text is concerned with the High Priests in ancient Israel. We no longer dress that way. Today only our Torah scroll reminds us of the garb of the High Priests. Nevertheless, this portion might give us pause to think about the fashion trends in our time, when anything seems to be o.k. Do we really have to abide by the apparent dictates of the latest fads? Or are we better served by being out of style but “dignified”? We do make a statement about who we are by how we dress. Our values and dignity, our self respect, are reflected in how we show up at work, at school, at a concert, the theatre, at a movie, for a stroll in the park, for a camping trip or at our Shabbat worship services! The attention we pay to our appearance is testimony to our preparation. It says: Here we are … ready for this occasion!
Gertrud Lind is president of Temple B’rith Kodesh Sisterhood in Rochester New York