Bah Mitvah Jacob Swirsky
This week our regular Shabbat morning service has a very special quality as we celebrate the moment that Jacob leaves his childhood behind and becomes Bar Mitzvah. In a profound sense, although Jacob only began actively preparing for today, just six months ago, he has been on a journey to this day all his life. And yet this moment is only a moment – and that’s what makes today so very precious: Everything about how Jacob marks this moment – his leading of the service and reading of the Torah scroll – heralds a new beginning; as he begins the journey of his teenage years towards adulthood, we all know that Jacob’s life and the life of his family will never be the same again.
I am basically a very rational person, not given to the apprehension of miracles, but I would have to say that every time a young person becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and reads a section of what is, after all, the weekly, Torah portion, not specially chosen for them, it is as if the verses of the Torah were, on the contrary, somehow miraculously selected for this very special transformational moment. In a short while, Jacob will share with us his understanding of how those verses relate to him and connect with his life, and although the portion was not written with Bar or Bat Mitzvah in mind – and obviously not with Jacob in mind – right now, I would like to invite you to reflect on what today’s double Torah portion – Va-yakheil-P’kudei – might teach us about the significance of this special milestone.
But first I need to set the scene: The slaves liberated by the Eternal One from the ‘house of bondage’ – with the help of Miriam, Moses and Aaron – arrived at Mount Sinai just six weeks after their departure. But then, during Moses’ forty day sojourn with God on the mountain, in need of a ‘god’ to lead them, and unprepared for the Revelation of the ineffable Eternal, they created a ‘molten calf’. After this rather problematic diversionary activity, which provoked Moses to smash the tablets – and then have to go up the mountain again to fetch a new set – the people were given a more constructive outlet for their creativity: the building of the Mishkan – a dwelling place for the Eternal – usually translated as ‘Tabernacle’. Intriguingly, the editors of the Torah interrupted the narrative of the Revelation by inserting the instructions for the building of the Mishkan found in the portion, T’rumah, at Exodus chapter 25, before the incident of the molten calf, described in Ki Tissa, Exodus chapter 32 – as if to teach us that in a way the errant people were right: How could they relate to an invisible God who dwelt in a cloud on a remote mountain-top? What good was God up there?
So, parashat T’rumah, introduces the sacred building project, and explains its purpose: V’asu Li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham – ‘Let them build Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (:8). But then, it becomes evident that although the point of building the Mishkan is to bring God down to earth to dwell in the midst of the people, the building project actually achieves something else as well, that is just as important: it transforms a rabble of ex-slaves into a community. But how does it do this? When the people clamoured to ’make a god’, Aaron told them to him bring their gold earrings, which ‘he took from them and cast in a mould and made into a molten calf’ (32:4). In the section of Va-yakheil that Jacob will be reading for us shortly, which expands the text we find at the beginning of T’rumah, we learn that in addition to bringing a variety of cloths of different colours, and various animal skins and wood and silver and copper, each gift a t’rumat Adonai – ‘an offering for the Eternal’ (35:24) – both men and women ‘came bringing brooches, earrings, rings and pendants; gold objects of all kinds’ (:22). These verses also tell us that ‘everyone whose heart was moved and whose spirit was willing came, bringing an offering of the Eternal for the work of the Tent of Meeting – Oheil Mo’eid – and for all its service and for the sacred garments’ (:21). So what was the difference between bringing gold to make a molten calf and bringing gold and other offerings to make the Oheil Mo’eid – the ‘Tent of Meeting’; literally, the ‘appointed’ place where Moses would meet with the Eternal, who dwelt within? The difference from the perspective of the Eternal is obvious – but what was the difference from the perspective of the people?
The clue to the difference lies in a key phrase at the very beginning of parashat Va-yakheil: Va-yakheil Moshe et-kol-adat b’ney Yisraeil – ‘Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites’ (35:1). When ‘the people’ took fright at Moses’ long absence, like an angry mob, they ‘assembled against Aaron’ – Va-yikaheil ha-am al-Aharon – ‘and said to him: “Come, make us a god, who will go before us”’ (Exodus 32:1). In the context of the building of the Mishkan, by contrast, the people are an eidah – a congregation, an ‘appointed’ community assembled together by Moses; the words for ‘congregation’ – eidah – and Tent of Meeting – Ohel Mo’eid – are connected: both imply a designation for a purpose. From the perspective of the people involved, there was a world of difference between feeling abandoned by Moses when he disappeared up the mountain, and being acknowledged by Moses as a community.
A comparison between these two building enterprises tells us a lot about leadership – and there is no doubt that Moses had to learn, from bitter experience, about how to be a leader. But just as important is what it teaches us about what it means to be a community. The account of the preparation for the building of the Oheil Mo’eid makes it clear, as we have seen, that ‘everyone’ brought their offerings; each person ‘whose heart was moved and whose spirit was willing’ (:21); each came with their special gifts – and curiously, leaving nothing to doubt, the text adds, ‘Men and women – came, all with a willing heart’ (:22) – and then, again, in the singular: ‘each man and woman whose heart was moved’ (:29). The Torah very rarely specifies ‘men and women’ – and depending on the context, ‘people’ means both, or in some cases, women are explicitly excluded. But here the emphasis is on inclusion – inclusion of each individual, man and woman. And that’s not all: In last week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, the chief artisan of the Mishkan, B’tzaleil, is described as ‘filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge (Exodus 31:3). Our portion today speaks of ‘all the women who were wise of heart’ (:25) and whose hearts were moved with wisdom (:26), applying their skills to spinning the different yarns and the goats hair. Wisdom – chochmah – a feminine noun in any case, is a quality shared by women and men – and so it seems that the phrase, kol-adat b’ney yisraeil: ‘all the congregation of the Israelites’ means what it says.
Jacob: three thousand three hundred years separate this moment from the day that the Mishkan was finally completed – and the Jewish people have been on so many, many journeys since that first journey in the wilderness – and still, your portion has important messages for you. Like each one of our Israelite ancestors, you have your special gifts – your thoughtfulness, your sensitivity and ability to sense how others are feeling, your loyalty to others, your passion for fairness and justice, your commitment to making the world a better place, and your sense of fun. And like them, your special offerings connect you with other people; like them, you bring your different qualities to the way you relate to the people around you; an array of gifts for the building of community in all the different areas of your life: among your friends, with Woodland Craft, a movement you have belonged to since you were six years old, and here at the synagogue that has been part of your life since you were five.
As you put it to me when I asked you, being Jewish means knowing – and I quote, ‘that I’m part of a wide community’. You also feel that you should ‘carry on’ the ‘tradition’ of your Jewish grand-parents and great-grand-parents. And so, becoming Bar Mitzvah means for you – as you put it: ‘Becoming more involved in the synagogue and taking more responsibility. And teaching others about what being Jewish means.’ For you the synagogue is a place where – and again, I quote: ‘I can be with other people who are like me, who are kind and respectful.’ Supported at all times by your loving parents and your sisters, Hannah and Rebecca, you have also received support from many of those ‘kind and respectful’ people here at the shul on your journey to this day – in particular, your teachers, Melanie, Eileen and Andy and your tutor, Harry. And you have always acted with kindness and respect in return. You have both received from others – and given your gifts willingly and with an open heart.
And now you have arrived at this day. I mentioned earlier that today we are reading from a double portion, Va-yakheil-P’kudei. P’kudei is the last portion of the Book of Exodus. The theme of the construction of the Mishkan occupies a good part of five portions of the Torah – amounting to fifteen chapters in all from Exodus 25-40 – and when it is finally completed, the closing image of the book is very telling: it is of a ‘cloud’ that settled over the Mishkan when the Israelites were encamped, and which moved with them, when they went on their journeys (40:36-37). The Mishkan, for all its resplendent beauty, rich textures and materials, was after all, an Oheil Mo’eid – a ‘Tent of Meeting’; a temporary, movable dwelling place of the Eternal: The mysterious ‘cloud’ that is the Eternal lives, neither ‘on a mountain-top, nor in any other particular place; the mystery that is the Eternal is in every place, and accompanies us on all our journeys.
And so the image of the cloud hovering over the Tent gets to the heart of the matter: The journey never ends – not only for the Jewish people, for each one of us; as long as we are alive we are forever on a journey – even on a wonderful moment like today: Jacob, you have already led the service for us beautifully; soon you will read from the Torah – and then, before too long, the day will be over. Towards the end of P’kudei we learn that the Mishkan was erected ‘in the first month of the second year, on the first of the month’ (Exodus 40:17). Well, today is known as Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, ‘the Sabbath of the month’, because it is the Shabbat before the beginning of the first month of the Jewish year, Nisan; which means it is also, the Shabbat prior to the anniversary of the setting up of the Mishkan. And there’s more: The original name of Nisan, Aviv, which means ‘Spring’ says it all: With the month of Nisan, we begin the cycle of the months and welcome the spring: what a perfect moment, Jacob, for you to celebrate the end of your childhood and make a new beginning: May the achievement of this day, and everything that you have given and received in the process of building the Mishkan of your life so far, inspire you, as the cloud moves on, to continue sharing your special gifts with others, as you continue your journey. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
13th March 2010 / 27th Adar 5770