I'm honored to have a piece in Evolve this month.
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I sometimes dream of building a small home in the Catskills and one of my favorite ways to waste time is to peruse building plans on the internet – all of which promise a straightforward and easy build process.
This week’s parshah, Terumah, discusses the building of the Mishkan wherein we receive exacting detail about how to construct, not only the structure of the Mishkan, but also many of the objects inside it. The specificity relayed in the parshah certainly gives me pause about building a house or even just managing the project.
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
Or HaChaim, an 18th century commentary originating in Morocco, understands this verse to mean that God will dwell within the children of Israel who encircle the Tabernacle with four banners. These four banners bring to mind the image of a chuppah and the marriage of God and B’nai Israel is a fitting metaphor.
An important message is that to receive God’s divine presence, in this case the Shechinah, the comforting and protective manifestation of God, the people must gather together, themselves creating a sacred container through the community they build.
A few verses later, we receive instructions on how to build the ark:
וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ תְּצַפֶּנּוּ וְעָשִׂיתָ עָלָיו זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב׃
Overlay it with pure gold—overlay it inside and out—and make upon it a gold molding round about. (Exodus: 25:11)
Our sages ask why is it necessary to overlay even the inside with gold as no one will see it. In order to teach that our internal thoughts and intensions, should align with our external actions. Then and only then do we make ourselves a sanctuary.
And just as the four banners in the Mishkan represent a Chuppah, so too, they represent the corners of our tallit. The corners that we gather together when we say Shema. The liturgy teaches that when we gather our tallit it symbolizes gathering Jews from the four corners of the earth. However, in actuality we gather the tallis around ourselves. In so doing, we make of ourselves an ark to hold the Divine covenant and the Divine presence.
Some say that the Mishkan below reflects the Mishkan above in heaven.
So this parshah, which at first glance seems to be a far too detailed blueprint, actually works on many different levels. As such, it teaches that every individual has the potential to be a holy ark, and together in community, we can build a sacred place—one that, though it requires work, has the potential to mirror the sacred workings above.
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you for inviting me to give the dvar today. I feel honored to be speaking on Sisterhood Shabbat.
I grew up in Binghamton, NY, and when I was kid, like all kids, we had gym class. Now, I like sports and the school was located across from a park, so we would go play on the fields. Well it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the boys got more time to play than the girls did. We have a societal awareness now that gender is more complex and less binary than male and female, but to my gym teacher, at that time, it was boys and girls. Our school discriminated against girls, despite the fact that Title 9, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity, had been passed a decade earlier. I experienced this unequal treatment and said – “That’s not fair!” Fired up with righteous indignation, I led a protest with my best friend until the girls were granted equal time on the fields. So, despite being a pretty quiet and shy kid, I found my voice to cry out against injustice.
In our parshah, Mishpatim, a lot is said about women, but women don’t say anything at all. Some of these issues pertaining to women in Mishpatim include:
In the third scenario, notably, the punishment is a fine, not the death penalty as would be fitting for a murder and this verse is often cited to prove that in Judaism life doesn’t begin in the womb. In addition to the this important point, there is another, not so positive message about the status and treatment of women. The primary victim in this scenario is the woman. She is the one who has been caused bodily harm. Yet, she receives nothing. The fine is paid to her husband.
Also in this parshah, we are twice told not to oppress the stranger. The first time it appears, we read:
וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
* People are strange
When you're a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you're alone
When you’re strange…
Faces come the rain….
Well. You know song.
The idea of welcoming a stranger and treating them equally is an important value, so important that some version of this commandment appears thirty-six times in Torah.
In Biblical times, the word GER / גר , stranger, was understood to mean a foreigner, someone who had migrated from somewhere else. Later, in the rabbinic period, GER / גר took on the meaning of convert. But, in the Bible, a GER / גר is someone who, although they may dwell near, isn’t your people.
Throughout Torah, the value of welcoming the stranger is lifted up. Abraham is known for his extreme hospitality. He and Sarah were open-tent kind of people. Ironically, Abraham casts out Hagar and her son. Not coincidentally, I think, contained within Hagar’s name is GER, stranger.
But people from other places are not the only strangers who live among us. What about people who don’t look like us, or don’t act like us? What about our family members whose actions, attitudes, and politics don’t align with our own? And what about sports teams? My own cousin, despite being born and bred in Central New York, is a Red Sox fan, a difference I have come to know as unreconcilable.
And what about gender?
Judith Plaskow writes about how Jewish women, despite representing half of the population, are “othered,” cut out of the story, and disenfranchised from participating as equals in our tradition.
Somehow, women have been othered into strangeness without the safety of being strangers. In this parshah, we are dealt with, talked about without being allowed to talk, so few of us are even given names. As such we are objectified and made strange.
In this way, we’ve been fighting a long, long, battle of gender apartheid. Here, in the West, we refer to it as the patriarchy, but it’s gender apartheid. Gender apartheid is a term that Western countries like to use to describe the treatment of women in other parts of the world. Now women do have rights here. We’re allowed to dress the way we want, although we may be judged for it. We’re allowed to vote, but no woman has been president. And we are right now in the midst of a troubling trajectory in this country to revoke a women’s agency over her own body—we are objects. We are strange.
* Women seem wicked
When you're unwanted
Streets are uneven
When you're down
When you're strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you're strange
When I was a girl in Binghamton, NY, protesting gym class (I mean we had signs and all the girls in the school joined in), there was a sense of change around me, a sense that women would finally have their day in court. Congress had extended the deadline for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equality for all sexes and in my youthful innocence, I couldn’t imagine why states wouldn’t pass it… but they didn’t.
I was crushed. I was other. In this country, my own country, I was the stranger.
It communicated to me and to every girl like me that we weren’t important simply because of our gender. We were Hagar, cast out into the wilderness. We were Miriam, silenced and stricken for questioning Moses. We were the victims of male violence without recourse, or retribution. We were the women in the parshah being spoken about and having decisions made for us, but not having voices ourselves.
Here's the thing. Without Miriam, without Hagar…there is no Torah. Try as the male narrative has tried again and again to silence women. Without women there is no Torah. There is no life.
As Jews, we are compelled to cleave to life, to community, and to gather in all the strangers among us, whether those strangers are from a foreign land, or dwelling in our midst. We must learn to see our strangers not as foreign objects, not as extensions of ourselves, but as ourselves. Then and only then will the world be just.
* People Are Strange - The Doors
Songwriters: Jim Morrison / John Paul Densmore / Robert A Krieger / Raymond D Manzarek