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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better (very) late than never! Parshat Vayak'hel-Pekudei

Dear online community,
I wrote the following commentary for this past Shabbat and for some reason unknown to even me, I never published it. So I hope you enjoy it (or that it at least makes you think) even though it is a little late, though it is certainly still quite timely and relevant!

L'shalom,
SPN
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In general, I try to steer clear of politics in my commentaries. However, the intersection of politics and religion has become such a dominant theme in our society as of late, I felt like I finally needed to add my voice to the discussion. However, in no way do I support the idea that our government's policies should be based in any way on religious teachings. On the contrary, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state as a sacred tenet of America's founding. Yet, I do believe that religious values and beliefs can and do shape the opinions of our politicians and that religious teachings can have meaning for us in the civil realm. Still, there is a difference between religion informing us and our leaders and basing our government policies on religious belief and dogma. Keeping that in mind, I would like to share some thoughts on this week's parashah/portion.

In this week's double parashah of Va’yakhel-Pekudei (Shemot/Exodus 35:1-40:38), Moses instructs each of the people to bring a nediv lev/gift from the heart for the building of the mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert. As I have mentioned previously, the mishkan is meant to be a dwelling place for God in the midst of the people so that they can have a tangible reminder that God is with them. After the incident of the Golden Calf, this is more important than ever.

When Moses instructs the people concerning the giving of gifts for the sanctuary the text is explicit that he is speaking to the whole Israelite community. As opposed to the census that took place earlier; which only counted men over the age of 20, this commandment applies to all the people. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to donate to the building of the place where godliness is to dwell in their midst. 

God informs Moses what particular items are needed, and the list is lengthy and varied in nature. There are threads of every color, gold, silver, ram skins, acacia wood, olive oil, spices, and precious stones “ just to name a few. These items are not only meant for the building of the mishkan, but for the lighting of the menorah, the burning of the incense and other ritual activities. Every person, regardless of their status in the community is invited to give from their heart in order to create a space for God's presence to dwell in the heart of the community. In the end people not only bring adequate gifts from their hearts, but the people give to overflowing from their hearts to the point when they must be told to stop.

I believe that perhaps the most important teaching found within Va'yakhel-Pekudei is that every member of the community has the opportunity to count. We each have unique gifts that we can bring “should our hearts move us" to the building of a holy community. This applies to every member of the community, with no exception. What makes each gift unique, even thought he material might be the same, is the heart from which it comes. Moreover, each of these unique gifts of the heart combined is what we need in order to create a space for God's presence that is to be found in the heart of the community.

Of course, this idea could be applied to many issues connected to building community, but I would like to apply it issues which are being brought to the forefront in the current political discourse, especially in the Republican primary contests. For, based on much of today's rhetoric, it would seem that, for some people, only certain gifts are acceptable, as well as only certain “givers.” It is as if each potential giver is being given a litmus test to see if they and their gift will be acceptable in the eyes of God …. excuse me, I mean....the community (read: government or political party).

The potential results of this world view, were it to dominate our country, would be the continued denial of right such as marriage, health care, birth control, civil rights and more to those in our society who don't pass the test. In other words, those who don't look, believe and act as certain politicians believe they should act. Or as they believe God, religion and/or the Bible believe they should act!

If this had been the case when the mishkan was being built, I doubt that it ever would have been completed. For the gifts of too many would have been rejected because the givers just didn't meet at least one crierion. God and Moses would not have acknowledged unique gifts that each community member could to bring to the building of our mishkan. Rather, the goal would have been to build a mishkan that was a reflection of the beliefs of those in charge of its construction.

I am using religious language in a political context to state what I believe to be a moral imperative for us all. For I am basing this on religious teachings, I firmly believe that the concepts central to the building of the mishkan can be applied to the building and maintenance of our society. For what is the Constitution of the United States if not the guidelines for building a community based on justice and equality? Our 'civil mishkan,' such as it is, is the government that we have created in order to bring these ideals to fruition. They are the places in which the greater good of our society is meant to be embodied, just as the mishkan housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments that represented the essence of what it meant be a full member of ancient Israelite society.

Just as the Torah does not exclude people from bringing a gift for the mishkan because of their beliefs or practices, so we too must insure that no one is prevented from being counted as a full member of society because of their beliefs or practices. Every human being has the right to be part of society, to love whom they love, to create families as they wish, to believe as they believe and to receive health care without any moral litmus test.. I believe these are among our inalienable rights, as they are essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are not privileges to be conferred or denied by anyone.

I believe that religious leaders and people of faith everywhere must make certain that these rights are upheld. We must dedicate ourselves to making our country and our world a better place by insuring that each of our individual gifts are valued. We are all created in the image of God and we all have the right to express that godliness in our own way.

I am in no way suggesting that religions should change their beliefs if something is contrary to them. For instance, I would never insist that the Roman Catholic Church provide abortions or even birth control. But I do believe that they must not prevent them from being provided. Nor would I ever suggest that all clergy should be required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if they felt this was contrary to their beliefs. However, that does not give them the right to dictate government policies on such issues.

In a free society, we must support the rights of any religion to decide what it will sanctify or not. I do not challenge this assumption. However, I do not believe that any religious group has the right to impose its beliefs on our government. As Jews who have suffered throughout the millennia at the hands of governments that were strongly influenced by religion, if not officially, an arm of the dominant religion, we cannot allow this to happen in the United States with regard to this or any other issue (even though often it does).

We must work together to insure that our national 'mishkan' is a place in which the highest ideals of humanity and our civilization can exist. For what else is the essence of holiness at its core? I long for the day when we can say that people no longer need to bring their gifts. I long for the arrival of the time when our goals are reached and all will truly be counted as equal members of society.
Until that day arrives a great deal of work needs to be done in this and other areas of justice and civil rights. For the rights of all must be protected and there must be no litmus test based on religious teachings or beliefs.

Let us work together with our leaders to continue doing the work to insure that all human being are counted and all of their gifts are valued and accepted. Only then can we claim that our gifts have been used to create a world in which godliness can dwell and be seen everywhere and within everyone.

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