Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vayakhel: Building a Sacred Community

Vayakhel: Building a Sacred Community

            How do people bond? I can only look at this from a male point of view. I googled Male Bonding Activities on the Web—you can find everything on the Web—and came up with this site: Men like to fix things, play video games, work out at the gym, watch or play sports, go fishing, grill, and enjoy a beer with friends.
I don’t do any of those things.
But I do go to shul.
“Oh, sure, why not go to shul?” you might say, “I mean, you’re a rabbi.”
But that’s not the only reason why I believe going to shul is important.
I go because, even though we live in an Age of Instant Communication and Information Overkill, we—men and women, both—still get lonely. And we need Community.
Community isn’t something that goes looking for you; far from it. Many people believe that, if they are just patient enough, the members of a Community will come looking for them, and invite them in. That’s why they stay lonely. Some folks believe that a Community will take the place of a family, and take complete care of them. It won’t.
A Community—a Sacred Community—is a group of people who share a sense of Belonging, and who work on that Belonging, in an active sense. It means building a temple—not just maintaining the physical temple—though we do have a beautiful one in our Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach; indeed, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring Holy Places I have ever visited, and you should see it, if you’ve never been. If you live somewhere else, and are reading this online, it means Building a Temple for God, a Place for the Holy One, where folks can rebuild themselves, both in Spirit and Soul.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, describes how the Israelites in the Wilderness came together and brought all sorts of wonderful things—precious cloth, goat’s hair, linen; the skins of animals from rams to dugongs (the Torah calls them “seals”); gold- and silver-plated poles and panels, besides the Golden Ark of the Covenant which was God’s footstool; jewels, both precious and semi-precious; and a host of other furniture and vessels, chief among them the Menorah, the sacred candlabra.
I’m sure that it was amazingly beautiful, and, when the Israelites were done, they had a Dedicatory Service, with dinner, and an entire list of Speakers, Musicians, Poets and Politicians, with Moses and Aaron (did Miriam speak, as well? I hope so) at the top of the list.
Understand me, though: the Wilderness Sanctuary was all Material; it was not Spirit. Spirit was what people brought to the Place—that is why another Name for God, one of the Most Important, is Ha-Makom, “The Place.” It was, I believe, the very first shrine built to worship a single God, our ancestors being the world’s first Ethical Monotheists in a world dedicated to materialism, polytheism, and paganism.

Spirit is what took place after the big dinner, when the Levite Band was playing Jewish Music—sort of an early-style Klezmer, with drums, harps, and castanets. The Levite Chorus was rocking the tent, with all the Israelites dancing, including Moses and Zipora, Aaron and Elisheva, and Miriam belting out God’s praises, ‘til the Mountains of Moab echoed their music and laughter, far-off in the distance. And all the little kids were running in-and-out among the dancers, playing tag, ‘til they were too tired to stand, so that their parents had to scoop them up and carry them off home, in the wee small hours of the morning….

You see, in these days where the “Jewish Experts” are telling us that Synagogues are Falling Apart and the Jews are About to Disappear, we don’t need more Master Plans for Jewish Survival. We need more moments of rejoicing—dancing and singing. Maybe the Israelites muffed the first set of Commandments, but, when they were building the Sanctuary, they had their eye on the Second Set.

We’re Jews. Sometimes we fall short of achieving our Sacred Moments, but our Community always succeeds, the second time around.

Couldn’t you use a Sacred Moment, about now?

Your Temple Community is waiting.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Kee Teesa: The Parable of the King and His Daughter

Kee Teesa

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            This Parsha, Torah Portion, contains one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah: Moses struggles to the top of Mount Sinai, leaving Aaron to supervise the People of Israel. When the Master-Prophet fails to return after a short number of days, the multitude begins to chafe and rebel. To appease them, Aaron allows them to build an idol, a Golden Calf. Whether the Israelites were worshiping the Calf itself or the invisible god who rode it (there are many mythological traditions in the Middle East of a thunder-god named Baal—he resembled the Norse god, Odin—riding a bull, or calf, as a symbol of strength and potency) is immaterial. The sin was their turning away from the Invisible Power atop the mountain, for an easily-accessible golden toy at its foot.

            Moses, of course, eventually returns, and is horrified to see the orgiastic abominations that the Israelites are committing. He smashes the Tablets, believing that the people are unfit to receive God’s Teaching. Following their punishment and penance, he makes the hard climb again, to talk God out of destroying the people, and receive a second set of Tablets.

            It is significant that this dramatic, tragic event falls in the midst of a lengthy set of instructions for building the Mishkan, the “dwelling place” for God during this wilderness sojourn period. The Sefat Emet (pen name of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) interprets Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105), the prince of Torah Commentators, to explain that God’s original intent was to keep the People of Israel with Him always.

            Rashi offers the Talmudic parable of the king’s beloved daughter, a princess, who (naturally) married a prince. The king would have loved to keep the newlyweds in his castle, but they were anxious to see the world and all its wonders.

            The king therefore said to them, “Wherever you go, make a little chamber for me, and I will dwell with you.”

            Rashi says, “This implies the building of the Mishkan, God’s sacred dwelling-place amid the Israelites, with all of its gold and silver decorations, and the sacrificial service of the priests and Levites. Had the sin of the Golden Calf not taken place, there would not have been any separation between God and His beloved daughter (Israel) at all. But once the sin occurred, God’s Presence in the Mishkan softened the blow.”

            What does this mean to us Post-Moderns? We need religion to overcome our existential distance from God, especially in our impersonal, Internetted, computerized world, where our Social Security number is more valuable than our name. Mere spirituality will not suffice.

True, there are spirit-laden “Sinai Moments” in our lives—sacred lifecycle events like births, b’nai mitzvah, marriage, graduations, and anniversaries; holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Pesach—when we feel God’s Presence, there amid family and friends. But on other occasions, we need the warmth of temples, congregations, sung prayer, and Torah study to draw us closer to the God Whose love we all yearn for. “Sinai Moments” are precious in our lives, but temple moments are equally sacred, and far easier to achieve.

Do you seek God? Find Him in the welcoming, smiling faces of your fellow congregants; you will never be disappointed.

Arthur Green, Trans. & Ed. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila.: JPS, 1998.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Trusting in the Children: A Poem for the Silly Season of Primaries

Trusting in the Children

By David Hartley Mark

                                    The Man in the Black Suit
                                    Waved his Big Black Book
                                    And shouted,
                                    “You Two, stop kissing and hugging!
                                    “My Book says
                                    ‘It’s Forbidden.’”
                                    But the Children laughed,
                                    And ignored him.

                                    The Man in Hunting Clothes
                                    Waved his AK-47
                                    And shouted,
                                    “Clear the way! I will defend myself
                                    Against Anyone Else
                                    Who threatens me.”
                                    But the Children turned to him,
                                    Spoke softly,
                                    Took his gun away,
                                    And gave him a cup of weak tea.
                                    (He sat there, mumbling.)

                                    The Man stood on the Parapet
                                    Pointed at the Distant Men
                                    And screamed,
                                    “Kill those Other People!
                                    “They are the Wrong Color,
                                    “The Wrong Faith,
                                    “The Wrong Nation,
                                    “The Wrong….”
                                    But the Children walked away,
                                    And would not listen,
                                    Forming a Human Chain
                                    Between the Two Sides
                                    With their Selfless Bodies.

                                    The Man built up a Fence
                                    Between his Nation and his Neighbor’s,
                                    And called,
                                    “Do not let them in!
                                    “They are different from us:
                                    “They cannot live among us,
                                    “We will never survive.”
                                    But the Children
                                    Tore down the Fence,
                                    Erased the Boundaries,
                                    And hugged the Newcomers….

                                    And then, I awoke.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Tetzaveh: Uneasy the Head that Wears the Priestly Mitre; or, Aaron's Soliloquy


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Call me Aaron ben Amram v’Yocheved. I am the middle child, born following Miriam, the Bechorah, my Sister, who is the First-Born, the Passed-Over One, the Dancer-and-Singer, the Poet-Prophetess, who will speak Truth about our sister-in-law, Tziporah, and receive her punishment from the One True Judge, alone, while I will escape punishment, holy man that I am, and will remain.

            And then, there is my baby brother, Moses—he of the Spiritual Heights, the Climber, the Mounter-to-the-Skies, who alone ascended Sinai’s lofty peaks (though I hear there are higher mountains in Moab, which, by comparison, would dwarf our Israelite hillock), and there, took down the Decalogue, which the Ineffable One inscribed on Tablets of Stone, with a fingertip of Lightning. He alone—Moses, that is—judges, prophesies, leads, punishes; he, with God’s help, chooses who will stand and who will go, who will spy out and who remain; who will chop wood, and who draw water—

            While I, Aaron, the High Priest, the Holy Man of God, day after endless day, make my Offerings: Sheep, goats, cows; doves, chickens, the occasional lamb—Passover looms large in our collective tribal memory, of course—and wait for the Holy Light to appear over the smoke and flames of the Sacred Fatlings. I and my Levite Crew, my Sons Nadav and Avihu among them, slaughter, dress, and stretch out, bloody limb after bloody limb, on the brass-and-copper Altar we are commanded to serve. Endless rows of bloody meat, as sacrificial offerings, offerings, off….

            To what Purpose? Why, that of the Highest: to convey the tithes of our People; to present their Thanksgiving-offerings for a bountiful birth of cattle and poultry; to cover up the sin of a Guilt-offering, and the myriad shades of Human Behavior in between. Adultery, theft, suspicion, anger, covetousness? Jealousy, manslaughter, ritual uncleanliness, consuming the Forbidden? Moving a boundary-stone, disobeying one’s parent, ignoring the commands of an Elder?
            Why, an Offering covers them all. I wonder; indeed, I do wonder at this—and, Mind you, I am a legend among our People; I am called “Aaron, Lover of Peace, Pursuer of Peace,” and spend my—highly limited—spare time, chasing Yosef and Ithamore in an attempt to get them to forget their petty squabbles, clasp hands, and be friends once again—“Hail Fellow, Well Met! True friends, all around, and let’s retire to the Hard Drinks Tavern-Tent, amid our Fellow Men, and quaff a mug of barley beer, or something a mite harder, hey?”

            I am, as I said, a Legendary Peacemaker. Yes. But come, Friend (whispering) to my tent, the tent of this legendary Peace-lover, Peace-pursuer, and you will find, all is not well.

No: something is rotten in Sinai, alas.

Who? Where? My wife? Ah—the wife of my youth, my own dear Elisheva! Well: she is not home: she has gone away. Whereto? Only my sister, Miriam, knows.

There are hints and rumors, I understand—for I have my spies, there among the ladies, too—of a sort of “City of Refuge” for departed Israelite wives, who cannot live at home comfortably, for having been—how shall I say it—neglected? By their—what was Miriam’s word?—workaholic husbands.

            I am one, it seems. Miriam has told me so, and how she warned Elisheva, and how Elisheva departed our home, leaving me with our grown and almost-grown sons.

And soon, she will tell the same to my brother, Moses, about neglecting Tziporah, our sister-in-law, our Midianite sister, whom he pays no attention to, what with all the busy-ness in which he is involved, affairs crucial to both God and Man. I fear her words. For I am a High Priest, but I am not God’s Favorite. Miriam had ought to watch her step.

            Why, you ask me? Well, it’s all well and good to keep a family squabble within the family—but when one goes outside the family, and makes private affairs into public information—especially when it concerns a Public Figure of Note, such as my Brother, Moses—well, Friend, things may go hard on Miriam.

            “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, My Sister,” I said to her, softly, when last we spoke of this. I am a prophet, too: did I not tell you that? Ah, yes—I did. I recall. I do forget so much, these days: all that smoke and fire will do that to a man’s memory and mind.

But she just tossed her curly mane of hair, my She-Lioness of a sibling, exactly as she did when we were little, and Mother Yocheved put her in command of Baby Moses, and Toddler Me—

            Miriam fears Nothing. And that, I fear, may be her Downfall….

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Pleroma Investigator: A Kabbalah-Futuristic Urban Police Fantasy--Intro: Bat-Sheva's Transmogrification, Luria Heights, New Brooklyn

The Pleroma Investigator (P.I.)

By David Hartley Mark

            I was riding the Pedescalator through Luria Heights, New Brooklyn, when I spotted another Tranny—that’s what we PI’s call Transmogrifiers. Bat-Sheva—I found out her name later—was a fairly youngish woman, Orthoprax I would judge, wearing the typical long denim skirt, headscarf, and colorful dashiki those types wear—sleeves down to cover the hands, modesto-style--typical. I heard her before I saw her—she and some friends were playing hand cymbals, castanets, thumping a doumbek—all very “Desert Rose” type of thing.

Early spring day. A cool breeze—we don’t get too many of those, any more, since the sun burnt its way through the remaining cloudcover. The Department of Domestic EnviroCare put up Solar Reflectors, all around NewBrie, to bounce back some of the Solarrays, but it’s still frickin’ hot, most days—but I didn’t notice it. Nice breeze. Then, it started: Bat-Sheva’s TransMog.

I was too far away to make out her face clearly—long, red-brown-blue hair, showing her to be Orthoprax, Moderate Wing. Coppery bracelets, shining on brown hands, long polished nails in the early-afternoon sun. Probably had a nice smile, like my daughter, Shelby—never mind that. It didn’t matter, anyway.

I first spotted her out of the corner of my eye, and my PI-brain-part went to work, while the rest of my brain, the civilian part, was thinking,

            Can I bail on leading services at the Shul-Shelter this Esbat?
What kind of fish did Constancy tell me to get at the Exchange?
What are they putting into this Caffeie?

            Bat-Sheva—this girl I didn’t know, had never seen before, even from a distance, and would never see again—had started to glow. And I started running—towards her, even as all the other citizenry turned away, shielding their eyes; they had seen this before; they knew what to expect….

            I flung my caffeie-cup away, splashing an elderly Pensionette and her Bichon-droid, which let out an angry electrobark as I jumped over it. Before I could yank-and-pull my Dissimulator out of my armpit holster—that is, unsnap my piece, flip the switch, aim the battered D-gun slowly, calmly—but then, I saw the Light—the Holy Light:

It was pouring out of her ears, her eyes, her mouth, even her fingertips—it was blinding. Tossing my Dizzy from my left to my right hand—my shooting hand—I unsnapped my eyeshields from my fedora-brim and covered my slitted eyes; I never forget to do that, even as the little whisper in my head is going on madly, automatically—I’ve been doing this for five, six, who knows how many years? It’s a long time, for a PI, a Pleroma Investigator—

Cover your eyes; it will blind you, fool, and then, you’ll be sitting in a corner of the High-Temple-Sanctuary, torn, dirty paper caffeiecup before you, moaning, begging for Peters-pence, a useless Drone—

 --and I flipped the switch on the Dizzy-gun to “Full Shock” rather than “Stun.” But it was too late—

            The light got brighter and brighter, and I could literally watch, as parts of the woman—a girl, really—started to disintegrate, so strong and hot were the spiritual energies working within her.

            Her friends—those fools, those do-nothing, jobless, praying, scroll-studying, bummy Kollel-Spirituals—did nothing; they could have flung a leaden shield over her. There was one close by, in the Municipal Astral Projection Prevention Emergency Box (MAPPE/BOX) that the Brooklyn District Council had voted to cement to each and every street corner.
No: the idiots stood there while Bat-Sheva dissolved into thin air, and applauded: “Strength, Bashy! Rise to the Pleroma—the SefiroteYesod! Foundation! Tiferet—Splendor! Hode—Majesty! Keter—“

Instead, I, I alone, running towards her, plowed through them like an antique football halfback I saw once on TheeTube decades before, scattering their shoddy brass cymbals (which went, clanging in protest to the ferralumin pavement, and wooden castanets, aiming my Dizzy, as I leapt toward her, squeezing off two shots—RAM! RAMM!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Terumah: Bezalel and Oholiav Visit Moe's Depot Construction Co. for Sanctuary-Building Supplies

Terumah: The Building Contractor’s Tale

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,  See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,  And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee; The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle. (Exodus 31:1-7)

            “Call me Manny. I work at Moe’s Depot Building Supplies. Been there, oh, must be about nine years, by now. It’s not a bad job, considering how hard it is to find steady work, these days: I help contractors, builders, and handymen who are building small construction projects for home or light industrial use. I meet all kinds of people—it’s amazing how we’ve become a Nation of Builders. Nothing surprises me—the housewives, young girls—sorry, I mean women—office working men, all kinds of folks—all doing the work themselves, who used to hire guys like me to fix up their houses. Yesterday, I spent an hour with this young couple who are flipping a house all by themselves, all during the weekend. How’d I learn what I know? Well, my own Dad was a frustrated construction engineer who had to leave college and support his family when his own Dad died young—he taught me a lot. And I love working with all kinds of people.
“Still, I am amazed, sitting there at my desk yesterday, to look up and see two guys who looked like they belonged on some oil-drilling rig in—where? Kuwait? Dubai?—in front of my desk, wearing full desert-sheik clothes  head to toe, sandals on their feet, beards down to their waists, holding rolled-up parchments under their arms, and squinting in the fluorescent lights. I am a little surprised, but hey, you get all kinds of folks in here. I take a last sip of breakfast coffee from my special mug and said,
“Good morning! Someone helping you gentlemen?’
“The taller of the two—he’s a hawk-nosed fella, with a dark-tanned face full of wrinkles, the kind you get from squinting into a hot desert sun—answers me, with one of those—what? Israeli-type? Arab? accents (Was he a terrorist, sent by one of those enemy mobs to inspect our Western building methodologies? You can’t be too careful. How would he get past Homeland Security, looking like Omar Sharif’s brother?) Says to me,

“‘We’re here to buy building materials for our Holy Sanctuary in the wild and untamed Wilderness. We want to open a Contractor’s Account.’
“No problem, there. I’ve opened all sorts of accounts, for all sorts of people. My buddy here in the South Florida store, Florens Auberjonois—he’s Haitian, and he’s always kidding me when I try to speak to him in Quebecois; my people were originally from French Canada—once worked with a trade rep for the Sultan of Brunei, and they were able to jabber away in French, ‘cause the Brunei fella had studied engineering at the Ecole Mechanique in Marseilles—so I start filling out the forms on the computer, and all is going well, until I ask the Tall One—he seems to be the Spokesman—for Proof of Currency, figuring he would give me a MasterCard, VISA, or American Express; that’s what most of them do, and I am about ready to to explain to him that we’re sorry, but we no longer accept Diner’s Club—

            “To my surprise, he pulls out a small leather bag, and pours out a little pile of gold coins on my desk—I lift one up, and it has the picture of an Egyptian Pharaoh on it—well, that is surprising, you can bet, but not something we can accept as legal currency, here in the Good Old U.S. of A. I mean, it’s the 21st Century.

            “’I’m sorry,’ I say to Tall Guy, ‘but I can’t take this. Would you like to take home this E-Z Contractor’s Credit Application, and fill it out when you have time? You can bring it in, tomorrow. No sweat. And we can do all the paperwork today. You guys look pretty trustworthy to me.”

            Which they don’t, but it looks like a Pretty Big Order, and the Store Manager was all over us yesterday morning to Move the Goods. I’ve been with MDBS almost a decade, like I said, and my Stella—my fiancĂ©e, that is—she’s looking to close on a condo in Orlando. “Close to the Mouse and the Duck,” she jokes to me, and I get it. These two Desert Sheikhs could be my passport to Fantasyland, for sure.

            “Anyway, Tall Guy looks all confused, and does a quick, jabbery, native-tongue conference with Short Fella, and they both smile, and nod, and say to me, though I suspect they’re just thinking out loud,

‘We will consult with Tuvya the Translator-Scribe, and he will make it all Correct and Proper. We will bring it back to you, Mr. Manny, tomorrow.’

            “So they can’t fill out the form, but I do get their names: Tall Guy is Bezalel ben Uri, and Short Fellow is Oholiav ben Achisa—sa—something—a little more complicated than Mutt and Jeff, but what can you do? These are hard enough for me to remember and pronounce, but they appreciate my making the effort—plus, I meet so many different sorts of people, here in South Florida, that another foreign-sounding name is all in a day’s work for me.
“And so, we go on. I pull out another standard form, ‘List of Necessary Building Materials.’

“‘What goods will you Gentlemen require?’ I ask.
“They brighten up—at last, this seems to be something they can comprehend.
“’We will need the following,’ says Oholiav, and, with much ceremony, he unrolls a large scroll—did I smell papyrus? It had a sort of plantlike smell, like those bamboo shoots in the Chow Mein when Stella brings home take-out Chinese Food—
            “’Acacia wood—we don’t suppose you carry that?’ asks Bezalel.
“’Actually, we do—it’s become very popular for flooring,’ I tell them, ‘We get it from Australia, of all places.’
“‘Is that near Moab?’ asks Oholiav, ‘Rabbi Moshe says we may get there by next month—perhaps we should wait, and cut it down ourselves.’
“‘I don’t think so,’ answers Bezalel, ‘Moshe told me that the Sanctuary was a rush job, and asks me specifically, “How long will this take?”

“Two weeks,” I tell him.’

“They both nod. Contractors. We understand each other.

“‘What else are we talking about, Gentlemen?’” I ask. They consult their parchments, and read from them alternatively.

“’Gold, silver, and copper—‘ says Bezalel.

“’Special order,’ I say, writing it down. (My close personal associate Vito is in the wholesale precious metals business. No prob.)

“’Flax, dugong and ram skins, purple- and red-dyed wool—‘ says Oholiav.

“’Probably three weeks—and I’ll pull out the special forms you’ll need to get approval from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) folks,’ I say, ‘How would your Rabbi Moses Boss-man feel about Synthetic Alternatives? We can probably find you some made from a petroleum derivative. That way, you’re only harming the Environment, not a species.’

“’And these Cherubim for the Mercy Seat—‘ says Bezalel.

“’What are those?’ I ask.

“So he tells me.

“Like I said, you meet all kinds of people in this business….”