Turning Towards Each Other

One of the challenges with Parshat Ki Tisa is that it deals with turning away from the proper path rather than turning towards it. After our ancestors made the golden calf, G-d said to Moses “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.”[1] Because they turned away from G-d, G-d turned away from them, proclaiming “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them…”[2] Moses, however, intervenes, refusing to let G-d destroy Israel. He says words which we repeat every fast day: שוב מחרון אפך והנחם על-הרעה לעמך; “Turn away from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.”[3] In so doing, Moses makes two very important points: Israel remains G-d’s people as opposed to a “stiff-necked” people independent from G-d, and G-d does not need to turn away from Israel just because they have turned away from Him at this particular moment.

The term “turn away” struck me because of the work done by marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman writes that the married couples he see who turn towards one another at times of conflict stay together 86% of the time, whereas those who turn away from each other stay together only 33% of the time.[4]  In our tradition, G-d and Israel are a couple, bound together by a ברית, or covenant, just as a married couple is bound by a Ketubah. In our portion because Israel has forsaken its end of the bargain, worshiping other gods, G-d is going to follow suit and strike them from the earth-that is until Moses intervenes. He says to G-d, ‘calm down; take a chill pill,’ and he gets G-d to refrain from forsaking the covenant. וינחם ה על-הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו, “G-d forsook the evil that G-d had said he would do to His people.”[5]

There are two reasons to speak about this today. First we are celebrating the conversion of Amber Marshall, her making the choice to affirm her covenant with G-d as a Jew. In the paper she wrote for the Beit Din, Amber said the following: “It takes effort to be more mindful and to think about G-d in all parts of my life. But as I’ve done so, many things have gained texture and richness. For example, as a non-profit lawyer, classically underpaid and overworked, there have been days I’ve asked myself — why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself, my partner, my family, and my friends through this? And over the past year, I’ve found answers in my developing relationship with G-d. It’s tikkun olam—repairing the world. It’s Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof—Justice, Justice, Shall you Pursue. These answers make it that much easier to get up and start again the next day after inevitable setbacks and failures. But it’s also asking myself if staying that extra hour at work is really necessary. It’s focusing on ritual and observance which finally taught me how to make my relationship with G-d a priority. It’s seeing how that observance creates more space for family life.”

This paragraph emphasizes the essence of brit, of a relationship. Each relationship is a give-and-take, whether the work-family balance, the public-private life or the sacrifices versus benefits. Amber so eloquently stated an essential truth of Judaism-that we get up each and every day attempting to grow in our relationship with G-d while concurrently striving to make the world into a better place.

The second reason to touch on this is because Amber and Justin will be getting married this coming fall. As I will not be able to do your aufruf, I wanted to touch on marriage today. Marriage is one of if not the most important relationship in life, a partner with whom one forms a team. There are benefits as well as responsibilities with marriage, many of which are detailed in the Ketubah. Amber had mentioned to me that it was important to her to observe the entire calendar as a Jew before getting married, and she has been doing so this year. I know that in continuing to grow in your Jewish observance (through Shabbat dinners cooked by Justin, not working on Saturdays and exploring keeping a Kosher home) you will also grow in your relationship with one another.

My prayer for you Amber and Justin is that you always turn towards each other, recognizing that your relationship supersedes any specific issue at hand, and in so doing may you strengthen your true love each and every day. Mazal Tov on this celebration of Amber’s conversion and on your soon-to-be marriage to each another. In order to crystallize the excitement that each of us feels for Amber, please turn to Page 841 and continue with me responsively.

[1] Exodus 32:8

[2] Exodus 32:9-10

[3] Exodus 32:12

[4] https://www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/

[5] Exodus 32:14

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How Lavish a Shul Do You Want?

In the United States we often have an “edifice complex.” We want synagogues to be bigger and more elaborate, with more and more donations for capital campaigns. At the same time, we know that bigger does not always mean better. Many synagogues today wish they had a smaller building that was easier to take care of.

We see in this week’s reading that our ancestors were the same in being directed to have embellishment. They were told to make an ark out of acacia wood, which needed to be imported, as well as overlaid with pure gold. The ark cover also needed to be overlaid with gold. Four gold rings needed to be attached to the four feet of the ark. The poles needed to be made out of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The cherubim outside the ark needed to be made from hammered gold.

Why does everything need to be ornate and elaborate? Why not take a more simple approach? An obvious answer is because this is God’s house so it needs to be as elaborate and high-end as possible. Rashi comments that the mishkan “symbolizes the crown of royalty” and “represents wealth and greatness.”[1] Rashi comments further on the requirement for hammered work for the Menorah “it shall not be made of segments; it must all be made from a single piece of metal.”[2] This is much harder to do and requires the best craftsman in order to construct it.

Ever since the story of Cain and Abel we understand the importance of giving G-d the best that we have. We needed the best craftsmen and the most expensive materials in order to build a home fit for The Almighty One. As each synagogue is considered a מקדש מעט, a miniature sanctuary, and our contemporary synagogues were constructed in a similar way: the best craftsmen, the most majestic structures and the most expensive materials one can afford. We were awed by the clergy team from on high, as if they were in the heavens. At the same time, many today, especially of my generation, are not impressed by these majestic structures of yesteryear, questioning their value. If G-d is everywhere, and we can connect at any place, why do we need such a “pretty room”?

When I was a rabbinical student, I prayed at independent minyanim which were located in church basements. I remember someone covering the image of Jesus with a sweater before Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kol Zimrah. Although it was not a beautiful space, I got such intense feelings of spirituality based on the people I was praying with and the prayer experience itself. At the same time, I feel the inherent beauty in praying in a gorgeous space like this. In my experience, it’s the people and the music which together create the sense of beauty more than the structure itself.

The challenge is that prayer spaces have been set by those who came before us, so how do we create a prayer space that speaks to younger people? I would argue that more than the space it’s what we do that attracts people. If we do not have a worship product that touches people’s souls, it does not matter how gorgeous the prayer space is. Conversely, the more inspirational the prayer experience, the more people will come despite what the room might look like. Today it might feel that our gifts from the heart matter more than the previous generation’s gifts from the pocket which endowed such a beautiful Sanctuary.

When we think about what our Terumot, our personal contributions, will be, let us consider gifts from the spirit as much if not more so than gifts from the pocket. Let us appreciate our beautiful prayer space, which is not “free” to maintain but may we also consider how we can shape our prayer experience to be welcoming and inviting to those of all ages. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 25:24 ד”ה וצפית אותו זהב טהור

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:31 ד”ה ועשית מנרת זהב טהור