Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives the Israelites instructions for the creation of the first mishkan, the first sanctuary for prayer. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Eleven chapters later, we read that the Israelites have brought too much: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded.” Moses tells the people to stop bringing these gifts, because it was enough, v’hoter. V’hoter means “and left over” – the people brought so much to the Mishkan that it could not all be used for the project.

It was so human of them, this eagerness. They tried so hard to please the Holy One that they brought too much at once. Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of the 65,000 teddy bears that showed up in Newtown, CT, just one week after the Sandy Hook massacre. Kind, good-hearted people, grieving for the murder of so many children, channeled their grief into gifts. It was well-intentioned, but it was more about their own pain than the needs of the community. Unfortunately, it was far too much for the town to handle, and one man was left with the task of managing $27,000 worth of toys that the children of Newtown truly didn’t need. He had to purchase 80,000 feet of storage space, which filled up quickly with more unnecessary gifts – v’hoter, leftover. Ultimately, it went to good use: The community decided to ship boxes of toys to orphanages.

Every day, we face countless opportunities to help – it can seem like the world is overflowing with needs, on both a personal and a communal level. Sometimes we are so quick to fix, to respond, to act, that we don’t consider what type of response is best, or how much action is necessary. The pain is too much to take in, so we act quickly, trying to heal our own wounded hearts as well as the wounds of those in need. The second line of Psalm 41, a psalm we say when visiting the sick, says “Ashrei maskil el-dal,” Happy is the one who is maskil in relation to the person in need.” In a midrash on this psalm, Rav Yonah says, “What does maskil mean in this case? That the person helping truly looks and considers how to revive the person.” We have to consider what is truly required, and then make a decision about how to give, and how much.

What does it mean to build a sanctuary? How do we choose what to bring, how to pray, how to respond when there’s a call for action? Will our sanctuary be a storage room for 65,000 teddy bears, a tabernacle beside a pile of v’hoter, leftover, unused material? Will we bring what is needed, or bring too much, easing our own desires to feel or appear helpful? Or will our mishkan, our sanctuary, be a space where we can celebrate and grieve together, where we listen, truly consider, and then decide how to act? Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. As we face the complexities of the world around us, may we remember that our intentions matter, and that our actions must matter too.

Toward Love: Parsha Ki Tisa

February is hard. Last week we saw the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of 17 people – children and teachers – who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on February 14, 2018. This week, I’m observing the yahrzeits of two of my former campers. One died by suicide in February 2016, and the other by suicide in February 2018. My uncle died suddenly in February 2013. My grandmother and great-grandfather’s yahrzeits are in February as well. Despite the losses piled on losses at this time of year, I am still amazed at how quickly everything changes. One day last year, 17 people went to school and never came home again. One day three years ago, someone I loved woke up for the last time. When I think about how quickly the world turns upside down, it feels like something has knocked the wind out of me. I’m suddenly suffocating, gasping for breath, grasping for answers. What are we going to do? Is anyone safe? Can anything we do to help ever be enough? I feel powerless in the face of pain and I find myself asking over and over: How are we going to heal all these broken hearts?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, provides an example of how we might respond to all of this powerlessness and pain. The Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf – a false idol – while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. When Moses found out about the golden calf, he was furious, and he shattered the tablets. But this was not his only response. Moses saw the Israelites in their sin, and he saw their fear. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days, and the Israelites didn’t know what was going to happen. So many of us turn to something familiar in times of uncertainty and doubt. We all have destructive habits that are comforting in the moment, even if they’re unhealthy and unsafe in the long run. These are our golden calves. Moses was angry that the Israelites had given up on God, who brought them out of Egypt. But he understood, and he pled to God on the Israelites’ behalf, an act of compassion in his moment of hopelessness and rage. Thankfully, God heard Moses’s plea, and decided to punish the Israelites with a plague instead of something worse. Moses returned to the mountain and received the Torah for a second time. When he came back down, he brought a new set of tablets with him.

The Talmud teaches us that the Israelites kept the broken tablets, and placed them, along with the new ones, in the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark. Why keep this symbol of their own fear, this casualty of rage, this set of broken laws? Because brokenness and wholeness live side by side in the world and in our hearts. Because together, these tablets also represented Moses’s act of kindness in the face of his own anger. Because brokenness itself is holy: The kabbalists teach that when God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, which means the broken pieces are always with us – in the ark and in our hearts, along with the pieces we have renewed through acts of kindness.

What is shattered cannot be mended, and lives that are lost cannot be found again. The children murdered in Parkland last year are never coming back. Neither are my campers who committed suicide. But we carry their memories with us, broken pieces lovingly placed alongside the whole ones. Like the tablets, we are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us. And we too can try each day to respond to pain with compassion, like Moses did when he found the Israelites praying to the Golden Calf. We can’t control the universe, but we can respond to desperation with overwhelming kindness. It’s not enough, but it’s all we can offer, and doing nothing is not an option. Maybe it’s arrogant to believe that our actions make a difference. Or maybe it’s hope. Maybe every small act of kindness offsets a moment of suffering, and together, we can tip the cosmic scale, ever so slightly, toward love. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to take the risk, and I invite you to join me, in all of your brokenness and wholeness, in making this world a sacred place. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. February is hard, but I am so grateful that we are in it together.

unRevelation

On Shavuot 2016, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. It’s the end of one long journey and the start of another. We observe our years of wandering in the desert by counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. After our freedom from slavery, after all of the wandering, we are finally able to own that freedom at Mt. Sinai, becoming a people at last.

The day after Shavuot 2016, and the day after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I was driving to work, stuck in traffic as always, crying as I listened to the story of the massacre on NPR. It was Virginia Tech, it was Sandy Hook, it was every other communal tragedy that affected me on a personal level. A voice inside rose like smoke from a flame: I want to be a rabbi. I tried to shrug it off. I have to be a rabbi. While this may not have been an answer for the world, at the very least, in the moment, it felt like an answer for me.

It’s hard to articulate why the Pulse Nightclub shooting inspired this epiphany. Maybe I felt like I had to do something, anything to heal this shattered world. Even though I know it’s impossible, I also knew I had to try, and this was the best I could offer. Maybe this was my Shavuot becoming, my revelation at the foot of the great mountain. Maybe it was just a feeling, a sudden knowing, and I don’t need to find words, or reasons, for everything.

Today, we enter the Shabbat before Shavuot in the wake of another mass shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 children were murdered. We received 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai, including the injunction, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew word ratzach, which means to murder or slay, shares a root with the word retzach, which means shattering. Moses shattered the tablets when he found that the Israelites had created a Golden Calf, an idol, while he was at the top of the mountain receiving Torah for the first time. How many lives are shattered when one is lost? How many commandments are broken when 10 children are murdered at school? The numbers pound in my head with my broken heart: 49 lives lost in Orlando, following the 49 days of the Omer. 10 children killed before we celebrate the 10 commandments. Mishnah Sanhedrin says whoever destroys a soul destroys a whole world. So many worlds, days, stone tablets, lives: all gone forever.

I have two semesters of rabbinical school behind me, and many more ahead. I still don’t know how to respond to violence. I can dissect the Hebrew word that means “to murder,” and I can connect the number of children killed with the number of commandments on the tablets. But in the days following this horrific tragedy, I doubt the smoke from a flame will again rise within me, that voice that urged me to follow another path in the aftermath of Orlando. I never did find an answer for myself, even though others in the world turn to me in moments of crisis. I teach them to sit with the unanswered questions. If there is a voice in the aftermath, it will not have an answer. It will be a sob, or perhaps a wailing, a recognition that the shattering never stopped, that we are still, after all, in the wilderness. We are here, waiting for a leader to descend the mountain. We are scrambling to hide the Golden Calf we built out of fear. We are still grieving the first set of stone tablets, the broken ones, searching for their message in the silence that follows the gun shots. We do not know if revelation is coming, only that the broken commandments cannot be reforged. If we want to bring about revelation, we must build new tablets together.