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It All Depends: Finding the Middle of the Torah

Finding the midpoint in the Torah has long been a matter of considerable debate. Some scholars say the middle of the Torah falls in this portion, Parashat Tzav. But the answer to the question, where is the middle of the Torah, depends on many mathematical, theological, and phylosophical factors.

D'var Torah By: 
Finding Value in the Middle
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Some people think the middle is boring, but that's hardly the case for our Torah. In its middle we find dramatic stories of our ancestors, laws, and examples of God's grace. Some people say that the middle of the Torah is in Parashat Tzav.

Giving Gifts of Free Will

As the Torah continues the Israelites’ dramatic, people-building saga, Parashat T’rumah approaches the story from a new angle. Instead of developing the literary adventures of a no-longer-nascent people or focusing on the striking events at Mt. Sinai, this week’s Torah portion is about the details. And these details are not the specifics of community-building or daily life. Rather, they concern, in painstaking minutiae, the construction of the Tabernacle. This is a parashah about holiness, and in the case of Parashat T’rumah, the holiness is in the details.

D'var Torah By: 
How to Move the Right Heart at the Right Time
Davar Acher By: 
Cantor Erin R. Frankel

In Parashat T'rumah, Exodus 25:1-2 relates that, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved,” the text manages to be both inclusively open and exclusively specific. We tend today to read this invitation as an equalizer; no matter the gift, God will accept it. 

Heeding the Call to Commandment - and to Obligation

Parashat Tzav continues the Levitical listing of sacrificial rituals begun in last week's parashah and discusses how to present the offerings, what the various kinds of offerings are, and the anointing and ordination of the priests. The parashah also explains the Levitical duty to keep a perpetual fire burning on the altar to kindle what we know today as the ner tamid — the eternal light over synagogue arks that reminds us of this continual fire.

D'var Torah By: 
A Kosher Oracle to Communicate with God
Davar Acher By: 
Callie Souther-Schulman

Buried near the end of Parashat Tzav, amidst detailed descriptions of the priestly garments we find a tantalizingly occult relic from the priesthood: the Urim and Thummim. These were divinitory tools the High Priest would consult when the human capacity for decision making was lacking. A close reader of the text will have already noticed their appearance in Parashat T'tzaveh in Exodus, where the priestly garments are first described.

Wholeness Is Found in the Little Details

This week's Torah portion, Parashat P'kudei, brings the Book of Exodus to a close. The Israelites — who by this point in our story have been freed from Egyptian slavery, stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah, and in this week's parashah,  completed the construction of the Tabernacle — are finally ready for their long years of wandering that will take up the rest of the Torah's narrative.

If your only exposure to the Book of Exodus was through children's Bible stories, Hollywood, or even the Jewish calendar, you might easily overlook the part of the story about the Tabernacle. Big stories like the liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the building of the Golden Calf, and God's appearance at the Burning Bush are almost always portrayed as the major events of the Book of Exodus. The building of the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that will serve as God's dwelling-place among the Israelite camp during their wanderings — barely even registers. But when Moses finally completes the Tabernacle in this week's Torah portion, it is after five weekly Torah portions, fifteen chapters, and almost half the Book of Exodus that are mostly devoted to the detailed and often repetitive description of the Tabernacle.

D'var Torah By: 
A Strong Finish in Constructing the Tabernacle
Davar Acher By: 
Ari Margolis

Most of our recent Torah portions have focused on the communal efforts to create the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that would serve as the central focus of the Israelite community in the desert. At the end of the book of Exodus, however, the completion of this sanctuary comes back into the hands of Moses, the organizer who started it all.

The construction of the Tabernacle required teamwork, volunteerism, and engagement of people from all parts of the Israelite camp. Yet, once their work was finally ready for its debut, God instructed Moses to set up the finishing touches of the Tabernacle by himself.1

Finding Holiness in the Rare Leopard as well as the Common Bird

"I hope you are excited for the birds!" our guide said to us.

We had just arrived in Tanzania for a safari, and suddenly, I was concerned that we had been assigned to the wrong jeep. "Oh, we're not birdwatchers," I explained. "We came for the regular safari — lions, leopards, rhinos — that sort of thing." I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the rarest and most exotic animals on the planet. Leopards, for example, are famously difficult to spot, and the black rhino is so endangered that there are thought to be only about 5,000 left on the planet.

"But we like birds, too," my husband assured the guide. "We're excited to see them." The guide nodded in approval. "Some people tell me, 'Nicholas, we came all this way for the rhinos and leopards! Don't waste our time with all these birds!' "

The next day I got my first glimpse at why people might be excited for the winged creatures when Nicholas showed us what was, perhaps, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen up close. The feathers on its back were the colors of a peacock, iridescent blue and teal and navy. It was tiny — the size of a small songbird with a belly like a robin, a rich orangey-red, and bright white eyes against a black head. "He's beautiful," I said. "Suberb starling!" Nicholas instructed, while I admired the colors. "Superb" really was the right word. I felt lucky that we had caught a glimpse at such a stunning, unusual being.

"A very common bird!" Nicholas exclaimed. "We will see many of them!"

And so we did. In addition to a few gorgeous leopards, one spectacular rhino walking in the distance, and a week's worth of other exotic wildlife, we saw superb starlings every day: on shrubs, on dead tree stumps, flying by our jeep, walking around every picnic area, even perched outside every bathroom that we stopped at. It was one of the most delightful surprises of the safari: I never tired of them: every single time, those birds took my breath away. Everywhere we went, their presence ensured that there was beauty.

Beautiful, colorful, and rare things are the subject of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayak'heil, which continues the Book of Exodus' long description of the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites are asked to bring their most valuable belongings: precious metals, expensively dyed colorful thread, spices and oils, gemstones of every variety, even dolphin skins (Exodus 35:5-9). With all of these materials, the community's craftsmen will make the most precious of all physical spaces: a place where God will dwell in the people's midst.

D'var Torah By: 
The Shocking Science of Mental Rest
Davar Acher By: 
Erica Asch

People would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts. That's right - a scientific study showed that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to administer mild shocks to themselves rather than to sit and do nothing but think.1 Given the myriad of distractions we face daily, from social media to nonstop news coverage, it's no wonder we are not very good at disengaging mentally. But, the ability to quiet our thoughts is actually quite important.

Rabbi Kalisch points out that this week's parashah emphasizes that Shabbat is so important even the holy work of building the Tabernacle must be halted. I would take it one step further. Our Shabbat rest actually elevates the work we do during the rest of the week. Mental rest is vital. Letting our minds wander for as little as five minutes can lead to greater creativity.In fact, procrastination can help us come up with unexpected solutions.3 Mental down time is key to our spontaneity, originality, and creativity. Being bored, it turns out, actually makes us more brilliant.4

Finding God in Large and Small Spaces

Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.

Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1

Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.

D'var Torah By: 
The Heart Is the Key to Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Nancy Wechsler

Rabbi Kalisch beautifully points out that neither a tiny New York apartment nor a sprawling home guarantee sacred space. Houses of worship or breathtaking mansions are not hallowed dwellings based upon physical structure alone. Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 34:1 creates the foundational text that God does not require or even desire a palace, for even a small space created with loving hearts is perfectly suitable the Holy One.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a, the Rabbis draw a parallel between loving hearts of a couple's bed and the Mishkan. We read:

When love is strong, a couple can make their bed on [the width of] a sword-blade, however, when love is no longer present, a bed of sixty cubits does not provide sufficient room. This is alluded to in the verses: Of the former age when Israel was loyal to God, it is said, 'And I will meet with you and speak with you from above the Ark-cover' (Ex. 25:22). And further it is taught: The Ark measured nine hand-breadths high and the cover was one hand-breadth; ten in all. Again it is written, as for the House that King Solomon built for the Eternal, the length thereof was three score cubits, the breadth thereof twenty cubits and the height thereof thirty cubits. But of the latter age when they had forsaken God, it is written: 'Thus says the Eternal, "The Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool. Where is the House that you may build for Me?" '(Isa. 66:1).

Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazeik

As we complete each book of the Torah, it is customary to repeat the words "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik." These words, understood as "Congratulations!" act

D'var Torah By: 
Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazeik : The Only Answer We Have
Davar Acher By: 
Joshua M. Davidson

The phrase Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik can also mean "Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another."

Don't Let the Fire Go Out!

The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus can be perceived as an operations manual.

D'var Torah By: 
What We Do Is What We Say
Davar Acher By: 
Neil Comess-Daniels

Having been raised early on in a Reform household, I spent most of my teenage years in a Conservative synagogue. I learned how to daven. I learned to read Hebrew more quickly.

Sharing by Command, Sharing by Choice

Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-7:37) continues the instructions to Aaron and his sons concerning different types of sacrifice.

D'var Torah By: 
Musings On Opposable Thumbs and Other Body Parts
Davar Acher By: 
Sorel Goldberg Loeb

In our family we have a standing joke: Our cat, Mazal, is excused from helping around the house because she doesn't have an opposable thumb!


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