You don’t have to be an angel to build God a house-My sermon from Shabbat

Terumah 2012

A few years ago I was leading a tour for people who had never been to Israel. At the end of one of the days in Jerusalem a few of the men mentioned they had never been to Meah Shaarim, one of the more traditional neighborhoods. It was around midnight, but I suggested we go anyway. Jerusalem at night has its own magic.


We were walking down one of the main streets, and I saw that one of the Yeshivot for the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslove still had its lights on. Rabbi Nachman is one of my favorite rabbis and biggest spiritual influences. He believed that joy, even in difficult times, was the thing that God most wants for us.


I knocked on the door, and asked the person who opened it if we could look around. He was very welcoming. One of the first things I noticed was an elaborately carved wooden chair that was in a glass booth.


I had heard that Rabbi Nachman had a beautiful chair, almost a throne, that was made for him by one of his followers. I could not believe that I was now looking at it. I did not know it survived.


The person from the yeshiva told me that the chair, which had been in the Ukraine, had been cut into six hundred pieces and distributed among dozens of followers who vowed to meet in Jerusalem. Every single follower and every piece made it. The chair was reconstructed and is now safe in that yeshiva.


The chair itself seems out of character for Rabbi Nachman, who was very modest. Rabbi Nachman said that every moment that the craftsmen spent making the chair his heart was was elevated and filled with feelings of holiness. Rabbi Nachman knew that this chair was not just for him, but was a vessel for others to do holy work.


I think this is why God asked the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a mishkan, a place for God on Earth. The tabernacle was to be made from gold, silver, copper and precious fabrics, but also from cheap hides and balsa wood. Each material was considered just as precious as the next.


After the materials were donated they would be crafted a particular way, assembled and then carried throughout the wilderness toward the Promised Land.


God created the design for the tabernacle out of the materials that the people had, and with the knowledge, skills and abilities that they had. They had just left Egypt, and could only take with them what meager possessions they owned, plus whatever reparations they could get from the Egyptians for their centuries of slave labor. Some got gold. Some got goatskin.


Some Israelites were skilled artisans, others were strong lifters. God saw all of their abilities and potential and designed a system that would allow each person to feel that he or she had a real contribution to make, and that they were valuable and critical to God’s plan.


The Torah is teaching us that when we use or own gifts and skills to help others, no matter what profession we are in, or what volunteer work we do, are any way we support our family and friends, is holy work. God wants us to use who we are to make a difference in the world, not try to be something we are not.


God says in the Torah, build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among and within them. It does not say God will live just in the sanctuary, but within all of us. When we celebrate who we are and what we can do, and cherish the same in others, we build God a sanctuary every day, in every place.

Making Friends with The Jewish Prayer/book-Final Session, Sunday 2/26

Sunday, 2/26 (tomorrow or today, depending when you read this) at 11am  is our last session discussing how to be friends with the Siddur and your own prayer experience. Everyone is welcome, even if you missed one or both of the other session.

This is not our last Sunday session, though. These classes are part of  hamakOhm, which is about developing interesting and usefull ways of developing ourselves spiritually. The next sessions will be dedicated to learning how to enjoy all aspects of Passover, including family.

Making all the pieces fit-My sermon from Shabbat

Yitro 2012

The Revelation at Mount Sinai was very impressive. There was tremendous thunder and lightning. The experience was so overwhelming that the Torah says the people saw the sounds, that they had a synaesthetic experience. In fact, the Hebrew is in the present tense, Roim et hakolot, that seems to imply that they are still seeing the sounds today.

Right after this, God says to build an altar. You might expect Gold, silver, diamonds, at least some kinds of precious metals and stones.

Instead, God says take the rocks around you and make an altar. Take them exactly the way they are. Don’t shape them in any way.

Let’s go back to Egypt for a moment. The Egyptians were obsessed with symmetry and perfection. The Pyramids are made of precisely cut stones, each one fitting an exact part of the structure.. The bricks the Israelites were forced to make when building the cities of Ramses and Pitom, had to be perfectly sized and shaped. Each one was the same size as the other, or it would be discarded.

This is how Egypt saw the world. They would force not just materials to the shape they wanted, but people, too. All slaves were exactly the same to them, and they had usefulness as long as they did what Pharaoh wanted. If they did not or could not they were expendable.

Let’s return to the altar God wants us to build. The people were to take the stones as they were and make something holy out of them. Large, small, smooth, jagged, whole, broken. Each was critical.

Good metaphor for people. People come in an endless number of different shapes and sizes, intellectual and physical abilities, and personalities.

So much of our world today is to try to get everyone to fit our image of how they should be, instead of celebrating who they are right now.

Our educational system, from nursery school to graduate school is often about taking all different kinds of students, and then trying to turn them into the same kind of graduate. Standardized tests. People are not standard. Kurt Vonnegut used to say that all people living or dead were purely coincidental implying that each person is unique.

Forcing people into a limited number of acceptable standards not only frustrates many people, but prevents them from finding what they may be successful at doing.

Physical appearance has a narrow range of acceptable levels, too. There are only one or two models of model. Thin and thinner for women. Muscular and more muscular for men. This has lead to an incredible increase in eating disorders among girls and women, and steroid abuse among boys and men.

Families are not simple anymore. They can be blended and unblended. Single parent or multi parent households, multi ethnic and cultural. We have to make everyone and every family feel like they fit somewhere in the community.

It is not easy or simple, but it is worth it. Maybe we ourselves are the difficult one that does not fit.

God created us differently on purpose. Go wants us to be like the altar and find a way to celebrate all those differences.

This is how we can be the model of an Am Kadosh, a holy people.

Loving the stranger even when the stranger is us.


I used to assume that all the slaves who came out of Egypt knew each other.

I would imagine them saying to each other on the way out, “Who did you have seder with last night? We were at the Goldbergs. You went to the Greenbergs? Did you see the Schwartzes there?”

Egypt is a big country. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who were spread out all over the country. It is not likely that each knew more than a few people. As slaves they would have lived and worked in the same area.

They were mostly strangers to each other. Many may not have spoken same language. The people who came out of Egypt came from different regions and cultures. They also may not have trusted each other, thinking that there would be Egyptian spies among them.

Their first big event as a people was leaving Egypt and then running for their lives from Pharaoh’s men. It could have been a disaster dividing them for all time. Imagine how chaotic the scene was. Hundreds of thousands leaving at one time, and then suddenly chased by the enemy. In front of them is the sea. They could have tried to trample each other to get away. The could have ignored the ones who could not keep up.

Instead, they go through the sea together. They go through orderly and quietly. When they ge to the other side they sing together. Even though most of them remain strangers to each other afterward, maybe only knowing each other a little better, they continue their journey together into the unknown.

It would have been easier for God to take a small, tight knit group out of Egypt who already knew each other, and then start with them in the promised land.

There are two ideas I want to share about this. The first is very optimistic about humanity. The second one is, too, but it is not going to sound like it at the beginning.

I think God put all these strangers together to show the great potential that people have in making connections to each other in even in difficult circumstances.

God gives us our mission statement. You were strangers in a strange land, and your task is to help the stranger when you have the power to do so.

Strangers do not have to hate each other or be afraid of each other. They do not have to know each other to help each other. The Torah teaches us that the only way to get through our difficult situations, our Red Seas, is to help others get through theirs. For a society to succeed it must look out for the well being of everyone, those who fit in easily, and those who do not, those who are easy to deal with and those who are not. No one should feel like a stranger.

If you look at Nazi Germany, it was based on the idea that only some people are authentic and worthy of protection. Everyone else was a stranger. Only societies that protect everyone will ultimately survive.

The other idea I want to share, which is a little more challenging but important to think about, is that all human beings are strangers to each other, no matter how long we have known each other or in what context. It is impossible for anyone to really know anyone else, and that no one can really know us completely. We never really know ourselves fully or all the time. If we are a surprise to ourselves we are certainly a mystery to others, and they to us.

This could lead to endless frustration and pain. We don’t feel understood. We don’t speak the language of our loved ones. We can feel like strangers in our own home or community.

Here is the good part. It is simply a part of being human. The Torah is teaching us that everyone feels that way, no matter how confident they may be from time to time, or at least appear that way, and that a key to happiness is not total knowledge of each other, though I think we should take the time to take an interest in what our loved ones care about and share our thoughts and feelings as clearly and openly, and kindly as possible.

The Torah teaches us that key is to love each other and look out for each other and be patient with each other even when we do not understand each other, even when we feel like strangers. We should love each other, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would say, not despite our quirks and idiosyncrasies, but because of them. Others will love us because of ours, as well.

We are all strangers in a strange land. When we recognize this, then we can accept each other and ourselves with greater compassion and forgiveness. We can help each other with life’s scariest moments, and like our ancestors, we can help each other get through the hard times and look forward to the good ones.


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