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Special Past Events (Sisterhood Archives)

Joyce Stern was the Honored Speaker for Sisterhood Shabbat 5784, February 15-17, 2024

Furnishing the Mishkan
Adas Israel Sisterhood Shabbat Weekend, 5784
Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
Morning Minyan, Thursday 2/15/24

Everybody longs for a home. “Home” means more than having a roof over one’s head; it also means feeling somehow that you belong. “Coming home” is the theme our clergy set this past Rosh Hashanah. The welcome mat outside reminds us: Adas is our home.

God also wants a home. Where God resides is beyond our comprehension. God is not in some galaxy far away. God inhabits a spiritual realm we call “heaven” whose dimensions cannot be defined.

But out of love, God also wanted to be in this world God had created. In this week’s parsha (Exodus 25:8), God says, “Build me a sanctuary (Mikdash) that I might dwell among them,” that is, the Israelites. God does not say to dwell “in it"—the building—but rather “with them”—God’s people.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed furnishings to go into the structures he built. Perhaps he was imitating God, who specified in exacting detail the furniture for His dwelling or Mishkan (Exodus 25:9).

I’ll now describe three of the pieces.

1. In the holy section of the Mishkan, God required a table (Exodus 25:23-30) to display bread. In Leviticus (24:6) we learn that the12 loaves on a tiered rack were replaced each Shabbat. The lechem was actually matzah. I like the idea that it was a reminder that God made provision in the wilderness for each of the 12 tribes.

2. Across from the table was a 7-branched menorah designed by God (Exodus 25: 31-40). The branches represented the days of the week—but not merely a calendric cycle. The 7 branches recall the sequence of God’s mystical creative process that begins the Book of Genesis. Adas Israel  displays on its front, just above the entry facing the plaza, a replica of that menorah—the only external symbol on the building.

The priests had to ensure the continual lighting of  the menorah. The text says the obligation shall continue throughout the ages (Exodus 27:20-21). Thus, in every synagogue, you will find an eternal light near the ark that holds the Torah scrolls.

These two items, together with an incense altar described elsewhere, faced a curtain that separated them from the Holy of Holies. Behind it could be found the central object of the Mishkan.

3. The ark of the covenant, a golden box, is in fact, the first item commanded in this parsha (Exodus 25:10-21). God mandates it first because it is primary; but I discuss it last for emphasis. The ark held the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Sinai. Engraved by the finger of God, these stone tablets were tangible evidence of an expansive mystical revelation conveyed to Moses. In addition, the ark itself became the point from which God would impart further divine teachings (Exodus 25:22). No longer distant, Sinai became relocated in the midst of the people’s encampment.

With these three articles of furniture, God was teaching the essentials of life.

The table held food which is necessary to sustain our existence in the world.

The menorah symbolized eternal light, which God created on the first day.

The ark held the Word of the living God that defined us as a people and gave us our divine mission.

Eventually King Solomon’s temple replaced the Mishkan as God’s dwelling place. Tragically that temple, as well as a later one, was destroyed by the enemies of God. Where was God to live now?

Remember that God said He wanted to dwell with “them,” our ancestors. Mindful of that message, the Sages teach that if we, their descendants, open our hearts to God’s love and the gift of Torah, the transcendent God will make His home within each of our hearts and give meaning to our lives. That is our eternal comfort. May it be so.

Joyce Stern

Centerpiece for Sisterhood Shabbat Dinner 2024, displaying Ark of the Covenant puzzle designed by Michael Stern (z”l)

Angels in the Mishkan
Adas Israel Sisterhood Shabbat Weekend, 5784
Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
Kabbalat Shabbat Sermon 2/16/24

Good evening  and welcome to Sisterhood Shabbat 5784.

Tonight, I have chosen as my  topic, angels—because they are featured prominently in this week’s Torah portion. We sometimes forget that angels appear quite often in the Torah. The Torah’s narrative describes God’s interaction with the human players, starting with Adam and Eve.

But angels—divine beings—are part of our story from the very beginning. When angels appear, the human individuals who perceive them usually know what they are seeing and while awestruck, do what is required. The Hebrew word used for such heavenly visitors is malach or messenger. The name is the angel’s job description. Note that sometimes these messengers appear as men. Here are a few of the many instances when messenger angels move the story forward.

Angels disguised as human travelers (Hebrew=anashim) prophesy to Abraham that his elderly wife Sarah will bear a child (Genesis 18:10-14 ).

An angel (Hebrew=malach) directs Hagar to a well (Genesis 21:17) and an angel (Hebrew=malach) stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac (Genesis 22:11).

Jacob’s vision of angels (Hebrew=malachim) ascending and descending a ladder in the sky is well known (Genesis 28:12).

When tending the flock, Moses perceives an angel (malach) in the midst of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2).

As Joshua begins the conquest of Canaan, a man (Hebrew= ish) appears. Yet he identifies himself as “captain of the Lord of hosts” and promises victory  (Joshua 5:14).

In the Book of Judges, 13:3, it is an angel of God (Hebrew=malach) who announces the birth of Samson.

Angels are also found in our prayer book which draws its texts from Tanakh. In the Kedushah, the vision of Isaiah (13:3) presents another kind of angel, a seraph. Seraphim who operate close to God’s throne, have the mission to proclaim the special nature of God as “holy, holy, holy.” As we emulate the seraphim by reciting their words, we go up on our toes as if seeking the divine sphere where these angels are.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we find yet another angelic figure—the kruvim. In the Book of Genesis is it implied that God anticipated a relationship with these humans He had just created. So, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed a unique intimacy with God. I like to say that God could just drop in for a cup of coffee. But through disobedience, this unfortunate pair alienated themselves from God and were driven out. God placed between them and the Garden, kruvim and a flaming sword (Gen. 3:21). Adam and Eve were forced into a world where they would have to fend for themselves. Now they were to experience life as we know it, with joys, yes, but with pain, suffering, and mortality.

And this was the pitiful condition of humanity until Abraham and his descendants came on the scene. Fast forward to the exodus from Egypt. Here is where we are in the story: In the last two parshiot, the Israelites have experienced the miracle at Mt. Sinai and committed to a covenant with God. Moses is called back to the mountain. Our parsha, Terumah, with its instructions for building God’s house, actually interrupts the flow of  the narrative. In two weeks, we read how Moses descends the mountain holding the Ten Commandments inscribed by God on tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18). Alas, he finds the people engaged in the worst possible sin—idolatry. Enraged, Moses shatters the tablets (Ex. 32:19). In due course, he returns to the mountain where God grants another set of tablets (Ex. 34:29). Talk about second chances! But that is how, even after  the sin of the golden calf, the Israelites wind up with the tablets that give proof to an encounter with the divine.

Back to this week’s parsha. God instructs Moses to build Him a Mikdash or sanctuary. This edifice called the Mishkan or dwelling in the wilderness, is collapsible and portable and is reassembled at each stop along the way. Besides being where God would reside, the central purpose of the Mishkan was to house the tablets of the Law—much like the National Archives holds our Constitution. God tells Moses to place the tablets in a special container to be kept in the most holy part of the Mishkan.

To cover the container, God instructs Moses to fashion from a solid block of gold, a lid or kaporet, topped with two kruvim facing one another. Now in Genesis, we are not told what kruvim look like. The kruvim of the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel centuries later are nightmarish, part animal and part human. In Parashat Terumah the kruvim are described as being winged and having faces. That’s all. Tradition has them appearing like benign young children, a male and a female. Years ago, my late husband designed a puzzle that when assembled was a three-dimensional model of the ark complete with kruvim. Tonight, those attending the dinner, will see them on their tables.

Made of gold, the angels in the Mishkan were not living beings like the malachim sent to earth, or like the seraphim of the divine world, or even the kruvim at the Garden of Eden. One wonders what these golden images are doing on the Ark of the Covenant.

Let us see where else we find angels in the Mishkan.

—God has the entire tabernacle enclosed with fine linen embroidered with kruvim (Exodus 26:1).

—Likewise, God has the curtain or paroket in front of the holy of holies embroidered with kruvim (Exodus 26:31-33).

In summary, kruvim were seen on the interior walls of the Mishkan and on the paroket, as well as on the ark cover itself. One may ask—why the prominence given to kruvim?

Now I will attempt to answer the two questions I have raised—(a) why kruvim at all and so many and (b) why on the ark.

At one level, I believe the many kruvim are there to remind the Israelites that the Mishkan encloses divine space. Perhaps we are to think of it as a glimpse of  heaven—here on earth.

But I think there is a deeper meaning. Recall that it is kruvim who guard the entrance to the Garden where God had originally placed the humans He had created. Adam and Eve, and by extension, we are barred from returning. If we cannot enter the Garden, is there another place we can find God?

The entire Torah is devoted to God explaining His intentions for humankind, but most especially the Jewish people. This parsha describes how God intends to even dwell among the Israelites. In next week’s parsha, God explicitly says He brought the Israelites out of bondage so He could be with them (Ex. 29:42-47). What a mind-bending notion! And imagine this: Throughout their sojournings in the wilderness, the Israelites could step out of their tents every morning, see the Mishkan, and know that God was in their midst. And that God was there out of love. How awesome that must have been!

And what of the kruvim? When God directed Moses to place kruvim in the Tabernacle, God also changed their role. The kruvim on the ark too are guarding, but not in the way the kruvim of Genesis are. There is no fiery sword. Rather, with their wings shielding the ark, the kruvim face the Torah and each other. In this way, perhaps God is saying, “I am offering you another way to access Me; it is through observing this moral code I commanded and through honoring prescribed rituals that remind you of your obligations to Me and to others that you can experience My Presence as Adam and Eve once did.”

The Mishkan and the Temple are gone. Yet the Torah, God’s gift to us, remains. And miraculously, the Jewish people remain. And we are still longing for God. The mystics tell us that God too longs for His children. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once taught,

To each of us, God pleads,

"Let me come back to My garden, to the place in which I found delight when it all began."

If that is indeed God’s prayer, perhaps it is up to each of us to find a way to answer it.

Shabbat shalom

Joyce Stern

Inviting the Divine Presence into a Structure and into our Hearts

Adas Israel Sisterhood Shabbat Weekend, 5784
Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
Biran Beit Midrash Lecture, 2/17/24

Background. By way of introduction, I am Joyce Stern, a member of the Adas Israel Congregation for 55 years. My late husband, Michael, and I married in 1960, right out of college. Early in our marriage we decided to create a serious Jewish life that included sending our children to the Jewish Day School and strictly keeping kosher. A major part of this commitment involved studying Torah. We joined a Jewish study group and signed on to the Havurah, which was just forming. It was in the Adas Havurah where we learned how to be Jews. As we became more deeply involved in our studies, a new world opened up for us. Torah study reframed our way of looking at life. Studying Torah can change one and for Michael and me it was transformative. We never grew tired of learning. Eventually, we took what we learned into the community, specifically offering dvrai Torah in Havurah and the TEM. I also spoke in the Smith, including on Sisterhood Shabbat in 2010. Michael, who led the Torah service in the Havurah, trained well over 100 havurah attendees to leyn Torah. He also developed many curricula that took our study group into our  5th decade. For these contributions to the Adas community, in 2018, on the occasion of  his 80th birthday, Michael was designated a “Master Teacher” by the Adas clergy. He had been previously honored by the Haberman Institute. Michael passed away in 2020. In his memory, I fittingly established a Torah study scholarship fund at Adas.

The Invitation. When the Planning Committee invited me to be the Sisterhood Shabbat speaker this weekend, I was humbled. This is an invitation usually extended to scholars or authors in the Jewish world, and I am neither. I am, as noted, a dedicated student of Torah. In the course of 50 years, I’ve learned that the Torah is truly, in the words of one eminent teacher (Rabbi David Fohrman), “a book like no other.” So, I welcomed this opportunity to delve deeply into this parsha, Parashat Terumah, which focuses on God’s instruction to build a home for Him in the Wilderness and to house the Ark of the Covenant within it. I now have a deeper appreciation of what that enterprise meant. Let’s see how I got there.

The Parsha. Parashat Terumah happens to have been my daughter Lise’s bat mitzvah portion exactly 50 years ago. Of the food books she has written, I will single out “How to Keep Kosher.” She is now preparing at Hebrew College for a new career in the rabbinate. I am thrilled that she could join me on the bimah and leyn for my Aliyah. Equally thrilling was that her daughter, my granddaughter, Shoshi Stern-Robbins, could join us. Significantly, this parsha has an additional family connection. Many years ago, every Parashat Terumah, my husband would present to the young children among our Shabbat dinner guests, an envelope containing puzzle pieces. When assembled, this puzzle of his design and making, yielded a 3-dimentional miniature Ark of the Covenant, complete with kruvim (cherubim) and poles for portage. Thanks to our friend Maria Lasa Sloan who figured out how to mass produce them, Michael’s ark was made part of the centerpieces for Sisterhood’s Shabbat dinner. The Planning Committee had no idea of the Stern family’s double link to this parsha. One has to wonder how it all came about.

My Approach. Today I'm going to discuss Parashat Terumah by

putting the parsha in context,

pointing out some significant aspects,

introducing two unusual ideas,

connecting it to the present,

making it personal, and

concluding with some music.

Overview: We are halfway through the Book of Exodus. Let us see where we are in the story line. My litany should sound a bit familiar.

We have witnessed formidable miracles—plagues and death on a national scale.

We have been liberated from Egypt—slaves no longer.

We have crossed the sea on dry ground.

Our pursuing enemies have drowned.

At Sinai, we witnessed an even greater miracle—the manifestation of God, signaling God’s Presence on the planet.

We became partners to an eternal covenant initiated by the Master of the universe.

By now you should be humming “Dayenu.”  What could be more fantastic than what the Israelites have experienced? But God has called Moses back to the mountaintop for further instructions (Ex. 24:2). So, we were left with this cliffhanger at the end of last week’s parsha, Mishpatim. It reads:

“And Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights (Ex. 24:18).”

Now in this parsha, we learn what God imparted to Moses while he was there—namely, the Children of Israel are to build a structure for God. Wait, what? We're going from a succession of miracles manifesting in nature, punctuated with sound and light announcing God’s entry into the world—to what?? Blueprints? Turns out blueprints are important. How important? Well, nearly all of the remaining chapters of Exodus are devoted to describing this structure and the institution of the priesthood to manage its purpose and maintain it. As the commentators have pointed out, far and away more verses are devoted to this structure than are employed to describe the creation of the world. Let's try to understand the significance of this.

Divine Fundraising: This parsha begins with a kind of preface to the blueprint. God is fundraising. Does He ask the Children of Israel to drop a coin into the pushka? No, God says whoever has the heart that moves him, please take from all the abundant “stuff” you carried out of Egypt and give me gifts (terumah). And then God lists the items he desires—gold, silver, copper, wool of specified colors, linen, animal skins, spices, oil, and acacia wood. I quip that it was the world’s first gift registry. God has an end product in mind—a very big, beautiful tent as a dwelling place or mishkan. Rest assured, in a later parsha, the donations pour in. You can count on Jews to contribute to a good cause.

Now there will be other collections for specific purposes in building this tent. But those are mandatory, a tax. Here in Terumah the call is for a freewill offering. And intention is everything, not just the donations themselves. The Sages took note of this. They connect that God says whoever has a heart that moves him should give the gift. “Terumah” also means to elevate. So, commentators across the generations have taught that charitable giving inspired from one’s own heart elevates a person spiritually.

Basic Structure: If you go to a source like that on page 1520 of our Chumash, Etz Hayim, you can see a schematic drawing of the entire Mishkan. The structure called the Tent of Meeting that holds the sacred objects, is set in a courtyard which is about the size of a football field. Within the enclosure, but outside the tent, is the public space where sacrifices were brought. The Tent of Meeting itself is divided into two parts. A holy space, accessible only to the priests, holds certain sacred vessels, namely the table for bread, the menorah, and the incense altar. A curtain separates the holy space from the holy of holies where the Ark of the Covenant is kept and where only Moses can enter, and Aaron once a year.

Construction Project: Let's begin by examining the whole idea of building a house for God. Now we know something about gods in a house, household gods—little idols you can carry around in your pocket or saddlebag as it were. And there were gods galore in Egypt, starting with Pharaoh. Other gods there took on a variety of forms and presided over different spheres, like the Nile or the sun.

But our ancestor Abraham had a realization there is but one God, a Supreme Being. Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob and Jacob’s children followed that path. So, the One God has been our God for many generations. But in our parsha, the Israelites are told that this God, the God who created the sun, the moon and the stars, this planet and all its occupants, wants a dwelling here on Earth. How does that work exactly?

Its purpose: Note, the text does not have God say build me something so I can move in; rather the text says,

“Let them make me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them.”

God is not moving out of heaven and into an efficiency apartment. Yet, in some mysterious way, God is going to descend to earth—in a cloud it turns out like on Sinai—which is vividly described in a later parsha, to take up residence with His people.

Think of it this way: the multiverse is vast. William Shatner of Star Trek fame recently went up in a spaceship. He expected to be exhilarated at what he saw out there. But instead, he was terrified. Space went on endlessly. It was black and it appeared empty. Shatner looked back upon this shiny blue marble and realized Earth, this speck in the cosmos, is likely the only place supporting life. This realization was for Shatner, a Jew incidentally, a religious experience, an awakening at what a treasure we have and are alas desecrating.

To try to imagine how God could dwell with us, Rabbi David Fohrman, one of the scholars I researched to prepare for today, noted that in this endless expanse, God created a place, the planet Earth, where we “carbon-based” humans could exist. My mother of blessed memory loved to garden. She used to say the entire planet is a Garden of Eden. God gave us everything we needed—food, air, water, materials—and the intelligence required to take advantage of these things and thrive. Fohrman imagines God saying, “I created in this vastness an apartment for you. Now create one for me out of the space I have reserved for you.”

That image echoes what Jewish mystics have said all along. Since God fills the universe, they theorize that God had to partially withdraw to allow Creation to take place at all. If we can entertain that idea, then it becomes less difficult perhaps to grapple with the notion of God occupying part of a building.

Centuries later (956 BCE), King Solomon struggled with this very issue. In dedicating the temple he built in Jerusalem, he asked in wonder,

“Does God really dwell with man on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You; how much less this House that I have built! Yet turn, O LORD my God, to the prayer and supplication of Your servant, and hear the cry and the prayer that Your servant offers to You. May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place where You have resolved to make Your name abide; may You heed the prayers that Your servant offers toward this place. And when You hear the supplications that Your servant and Your people Israel offer toward this place, give heed in Your heavenly abode—give heed and pardon.” (2 Chron. 6:18–21, JPS Tanakh)

I think King Solomon is addressing his prayer beyond the Divine Presence hovering over the Ark of the Covenant to the God of Creation. Still, the distinction remains a conundrum.

Naming God’s House: In examining the text, let’s clarify what this building is called. The first designation is what God first calls it (Ex. 25:8)–a mikdash, translated as “sanctuary”—Build for me a sanctuary. Note the root letters of the Hebrew are connected to words associated with holiness, like in the word kadosh. But in the very next verse (Ex. 25:9), our text shifts and God calls it a mishkan, translated as “tabernacle.” I understand that mishkan has the connotation of a place to rest. That to me suggests a state that is temporary, which the Mishkan was always intended to be.

Sanctuary vs. a Dwelling: Those two different words illustrate the tension just posed of how can God Who created the world be seen as living in the world. I suggest that mikdash/sanctuary is something holy, set apart. And yet God wants a mishkan/dwelling, which is intimate, approachable. The Mikdash/Mishkan in the Wilderness is both. It is placed amidst the people. Yet the interior is off limits to them because it is too holy to be experienced by ordinary folk. This demarcation replicates the limitations of access to and on Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah.

Significantly, mikdash is the term applied to the temple in Jerusalem hundreds of years later when Solomon builds it—the Beit ha-Mikdash, a sanctuary. In our day, “sanctuary” is a weighted word. Recently, when vandals entered the National Archives and attacked this country’s founding document, the Constitution, the director called that institution a “sanctuary.” The concept comes from our Torah. So does the concept of “tabernacle,” though the term mishkan as a place to worship the God of Israel is only used in our Torah for the temporary structure described in this parsha, centuries before Solomon’s Temple is built.

Of Special Note. In my overview, I said I would point out some things in the text that merit particular attention.

Requiring Exactitude: One is how prescriptive God is in dictating to Moses how to go about constructing the Mishkan. Modern science has only recently had the sophistication to point out the need for precise alignment of every single element of our world and the known universe to permit life to exist on this planet. God, who created everything according to God's science, which we are still grappling to understand, requires comparable precision in the dwelling He is mandating. Twice in our parsha God emphasizes to Moses that he is to carry out the command regarding the construction precisely as instructed.

“Exactly as I show you the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of the furnishings so shall you make it” (Ex. 25:9).

For the menorah (Ex. 25:40), God says, “Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain.”

The Divine Source: And three times we are told the information was transmitted to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

The first is in the example I just quoted regarding the menorah.

Then, after the planks, sockets and bars have been described, God says, “Then set up the tabernacle, according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain” (Ex. 26:30).

Finally, as a reminder of where all of this information was coming from regarding the altar and accoutrements in the courtyard where sacrifices are made, God says to Moses, “As you were shown on the mountain, so shall they be made” (Ex. 27:8).

The divinity of the design is made explicit.

The Ark of the Covenant: God’s blueprints for the Mishkan are described from the inside out. The first mandate concerns the vessels—first the ark, then the menorah, the table for bread, and the outside altar. Then God describes the walls, then the roof, then finally, the enclosure. It’s important to understand why the ark is mentioned first. The point is—the entire Mishkan is designed to protect the ark! And why? It is the most important vessel. It will hold our Constitution—the Ten Commandments.

The design for each of the vessels, including the ark, features rings on the sides so that poles can be inserted, allowing them to be carried from place to place. What is significant about the ark, however, is that the Torah specifically says the poles for carrying it are inherently part of the structure (Ex. 25:15). The other vessels have poles that are removable. Their poles are stored away until it’s time to transport each vessel. But the ark poles are to remain fixed.

God is clearly anticipating the need to save the Ark of the Covenant if hasty evacuation is required. But there is significance metaphorically; the Torah must go wherever Jews go. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory says this need, which occurred numerous times in our history, was foreshadowed by God’s command that the poles should never be removed. The message could not be clearer: the Israelites can dispense with sacrifice. Likewise, they can dispense with the ritual of showbread and incense. But Jews can never be parted from Torah which guides our lives always. I will return to this topic later.

Significant Perspectives. In my introduction, I promised to present two unusual perspectives involving the Mishkan. The first addresses the use of wood in its construction. The second puts the Mishkan in the context of God’s desire to form a relationship with the humans He created.

Abundance of Wood: Most of the wood in the Mishkan is used for the pillars that defined the courtyard. But there is wood in several of the vessels as well, most notably, the ark. Significantly, the Ark of the Covenant actually consists of three intersecting boxes—a golden box, a wooden box, and another golden box.

One might wonder why the ark holding the sacred tablets would include wood at all. Of possible interpretations, I would like to put forth one derived in part from lectures by Rabbi Fohrman. The preponderance of wood is meant to recall the earliest days of Creation. Trees were created on the fourth day. And in the Garden of Eden, there were not only the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but likely an abundance of trees. God notes this when He says to Adam and Eve that they could eat from any of the trees there but one. Perhaps by including so much wood in the Mishkan, God is saying that while gold, the most precious metal, is what is required for this mini heaven (the Mishkan), we must never forget where our relationship began. The wood hearkens back to mankind’s original home at the start of Creation and the relationship with God first forged in the Garden.

God’s Longing: With that I will segway into a second unusual thesis. And that is that God is reluctant to give up on these human creatures He has created.

So, after the sin of Adam and Eve, and after the first murder, God allowed Eve to conceive again, and with Seth a line leading to Noah began.

But because of the evil of the world, the world is destroyed. God could easily have destroyed everything. End of story. But no, he allowed another beginning with Noah, which continues until Noah’s descendant, Abraham appears.

The human creatures God formed, and which were endowed with free will, have a proclivity for evil, a trait which God himself observes in the Torah both before and after the flood. Professor Leon Kass writes that until Abraham, mankind is “uninstructed” (From Tikvah Ideas: Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, taught by Kass in conversation with Jonathan Silver, online, 2024).

This situation cries out for correction. So it is with Abraham that God initiates the process of defining morality. With Abraham and his descendants, God is beginning again.

To further that new start, God then chooses Abraham’s descendant, Moses, to save and educate his nation regarding God’s expectations. The Mishkan built by Moses housed the law that determined the destiny of the Jewish people who were to model morality to the rest of the inhabitants of the Earth. Rabbi David Hartmann wrote that Jews are

“…a people chosen by God to be a medium of God’s vision of holiness and justice” (An Open Letter to a Reform Rabbi, A Heart of Many Rooms 1999).

We live in a post-Sinai world, where morality between humans and proper conduct towards God have been defined. These rules were promulgated by God then and have not changed. That people ignore or even defy God’s instruction is an ongoing tragedy, even threatening the future of mankind.

The thesis then, derived from numerous sources, is that building the Mishkan, which houses and protects the Ten Commandments, cements a new beginning in the relationship between God and humans.

I found in “Studies on Shmot,” by Nehama Leibowitz (z”l) a chart that reinforces this thesis. The chart which follows compares language used in God’s acts of Creation in The Book of Genesis with words describing Moses’ work constructing the Mishkan.

To conclude my three days as the Sisterhood speaker, I’ve gone beyond the blueprint to future chapters describing the completion of the Mishkan. The use of the same words for Moses constructing the Mishkan that are used in describing God's acts of Creation, I believe conveys that henceforth, God expects the Israelites to be partners with Him in living properly in His world. In the words of Leibowitz,

It is incumbent upon man to imitate his Creator, His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.

There is no time to discuss this remarkable chart. But I've included it for your study. Leibowitz cites as her sources articles by Martin Buber (translated into English in 1968) and by Franz Rosenzweig, 1936, untranslated from the German. See p. 486 of “Studies on Shmot,” Part 2, The World Zionist Organization, 1976.

From Temple to Synagogue. The goal in creating the Mishkan was to further the purpose of the community. It was a structure

for the people through the priests to communicate with God, and in turn,

for God through Moses to communicate with the people.

It was the locus of Israelite life. Eventually, religious practice was directed to the Temple in Jerusalem, as reinforced by the pilgrimage festivals mandated in the Torah. And our prophets, knowing the Word came from the eternal God, anticipated the entire world making pilgrimage to God’s house.

And many nations shall go, and they shall say, "Come, let us go up to the Lord's mount and to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths," for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Micha 4:2.)

בוְֽהָֽלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ | וְנַֽעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהֹוָ֗ה וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵֽלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֚י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהֹוָ֖ה מִירֽוּשָׁלִָֽם:

The eventual destruction of the Temple, therefore, was the ultimate catastrophe. Did that mean the God of Israel was destroyed as well? The Sages of the first century C.E. responded with an emphatic, “NO!” They devised a solution and recreated a Judaism independent of the central place of worship.

The Legacy of the Mishkan: We all know that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. And when they set forth, it was the Ark that led the way. How the Mishkan was dismantled, transported, and reassembled was strictly regulated with different tasks assigned to the Cohanim and the Levites. This occurred repeatedly, not only in the Wilderness, but to some degree in the Land, until King Solomon’s Temple replaced it. To Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the idea of portability first practiced in the Wilderness, was critical when disaster struck, and the Temple in Jerusalem was razed by the enemies of God.

According to Rabbi Sacks, creating a synagogue was revolutionary for it shifted the focus from a central place of worship to a gathering of worshippers wherever they were. The synagogue became, according to Sacks, “Jerusalem in exile.” He traces this idea to the portable Mishkan. As the Mishkan had traveled, so too did God. From this example, the Jewish people in the diaspora felt, in his words,

“Wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for God is everywhere.”

The loss of the Temple and the disappearance of the tablets of the law did not spell the end of Judaism. Today, Jews continue to gather, to pray, to study and to carry out communal activities in synagogues. As in ancient times, worship is focused on a holy object. In our day, it is the Torah scrolls, our legacy. But unlike the tablets which were hidden from view, our Torah is taken out multiple times a week to be read by clergy and the congregation. This reflects an intimacy of association between a people and their God.

Vision for Renewal: Ten years ago, Adas Israel launched a campaign to beautify and upgrade our synagogue. Under Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, this campaign was called the “Vision for Renewal.” Every synagogue has sanctity because it holds the scrolls of the law. I believe that the design of the Adas sanctuary—and it is called the sanctuary—has promoted a feeling of sanctity. In that expansive, light-filled space, you can feel the sacredness. The Biran Beit Midrash serves as a study hall, social hall, and prayer space. For me, the overwhelming mood is one of vibrancy. The remodeled Kay Hall and remodeled Gewirz Beit Am have a similar vitality. Nearly a decade after completion, I would say that the Adas “Vision for Renewal” succeeded in attaining its purposes of promoting both community bonding and a sense of the ineffable.

Learning: To these architectural enhancements has been added teaching by clergy on a heretofore unprecedented scale. I told our rabbis they have turned Adas Israel into a seminary and that is the highest compliment. While the Mishkan was a portable Sinai, Adas Israel has become a perpetual Sinai. Led by our learned Rabbis, we study our foundational texts with reverence, seeking to understand from ancient Sages and modern teachers what these timeless messages impart for us today.

Our beautiful spaces are filled with seekers after God, people—clergy and laity—doing God‘s work, day in and day out. We teach, we help, we mentor, we pray, we guide. We sing, we laugh, we cry, we socialize. We are a vibrant community thanks to our spiritual leadership and the visionaries who gave us settings in which to do holy work—and which is sustained by the many people of this generation who, like the Israelites of old, lift up gifts from the heart to make it possible.

A Personal Relationship. I would like to close with the intimate. As I noted, from the earliest days, commentators understood that God did not intend for His message to simply apply to a building, despite the fact that so many words are devoted to that building, the Mishkan. Our clue is the word, bitocham. God is saying build me a sanctuary/tabernacle so that I can be with them. On one level, of course, God means so that He can be in the midst of the people, which He was as the Israelites traveled in the Wilderness and then settled the Land.

But the Sages also took that word to suggest “… so that I can be with each and every one of them.”  God hints at that possibility when he starts the instruction by seeking donations from those whose “hearts are open and willing.” If our hearts are open and willing, God can reside there. According to one Hasidic teaching,

"… the Mishkan in the desert… refers to us. We Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. That is why they erected the Mishkan from offerings there in the wilderness. This process has never ceased and goes on in every generation. Thus, our sages taught regarding this verse (Ex. 25:8).  "… that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling for divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us" (Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, later 18th Century).

So many of the people in this room I know devote their lives to doing mitzvot, to the practice of hesed. In the words of the mystics, such people are bringing down the sparks, allowing the divine to enter our lives.

For me, it is at shul in the company of other Jews and before the holy ark with the sacred scrolls that I can truly be inspired. Few things move me as much as seeing my brother and sister congregants line up every Yom Kippur near the end of the day to kiss the Torah and have their private conversations with God. Young and old, with no self-consciousness or embarrassment, ascend the bimah to meet their God. Of course, one can talk to God anywhere, anytime. But on the Day of Atonement, there is a special quality to these prayers as we ask for forgiveness. At least that’s how I view it.

Music. And on that note, pun intended, the promised music. The Psalms often reference the Temple. But the notion of building a house for God has captured the imagination of Jewish and non-Jewish poets and composers to the modern day. I knew of one song of praise in particular, but friends brought my attention to two others. One is a Bluegrass song that traces its roots to street musicians in the Black community. The second song was composed in the late 18th century by a Hasidic master. It is profoundly mystical and uses imagery of the Mishkan and of sacrifice. The final song, the one I already knew, comes from the evangelical world, but many synagogues have incorporated it into their services. It concerns the desire to dedicate oneself as a sanctuary to God.

I would like to sing these songs with some Sisterhood members from Cantor Ari’s flash choir. I hope you enjoy them and will join us as we end the program.

And in conclusion, “Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary.”

Lord prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true.
And with thanksgiving
I'll be a living
Sanctuary, oh for You.
Help me say now,

Lord prepare me (to be a sanctuary)
To be a sanctuary (pure and holy)
Pure and holy (tried and true)
Tried and true (and with thanksgiving).
And with thanksgiving (oh I'll be)
I'll be a living (sanctuary)
Sanctuary (for you)
For you. 

John W. Thompson and Randy Scruggs

Thank you everyone for your participation and Shabbat shalom.

Joyce Stern
Sisterhood Shabbat Speaker, 5784

2023 Garden of the Righteous Honoree: José Ignacio Burbano, Grandfather of Past Sisterhood President Betty Adler

On April 18, 2023, Adas Israel Congregation inducted José Ignacio Burbano into the synagogue’s Garden of the Righteous, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Burbano was the grandfather of Betty Adler, a long-time Adas Israel member and a Sisterhood past president. With help from others, including her cousin Mariamelia from Equador, Betty eloquently told her grandfather’s story. 

José Ignacio Burbano (1890-1973), an Ecuadorian diplomat, was a man whose actions spoke of him as a humanist. During his mission as Consul of Ecuador in Bremen, Germany, from 1937 to 1940, Burbano worked diligently to save the lives of Jews, breaking the rules and challenging Ecuador’s anti-immigration policies. Putting his career and life at risk, he stood up to the Ecuadorian authorities, granting more than 200 visas to Jewish families and saving the lives of many German Jews whose lives were in extreme danger from the Nazi regime. Burbano courageously continued saving Jewish families until he was relieved of his duties and relocated to the Ecuadorian consulate in Houston, Texas.

Many years after Burbano’s actions in Bremen, his eldest daughter married Federico Adler, an Austrian Jew who had found refuge in Quito, Ecuador. Betty is their daughter. Thus – bringing Burbano’s heroic actions full circle – by saving Jewish families, Burbano unknowingly also saved his own future son-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Sisterhood’s members are so pleased that our former President Betty Adler was able to celebrate this well-deserved family honor. Please click here for a link to Betty Adler's speech.


Mon, May 20 2024 12 Iyyar 5784