I had the incredible honor of portraying the character "Mama Rose" in my synagogue's production of Gypsy this past spring. I'm a "theatre person" at my core, and it's my secret identity. Actually, I guess it wasn't such a secret; some of the lay leaders saw the production and my involvement in it, as a wonderful opportunity both for fundraising and for community building. It was an immense amount of work and there were hundreds of hours of rehearsals and memorization involved. I don't know what kind of person in a 24-7 rabbinical job decides to take on one of the biggest roles in Broadway history, but I guess that's a topic for another day.
When I first entered my synagogue, the floor plan took on a personally symbolic meaning. As I took my place on the bimah, I realized that I could see the stage in the social hall directly in front of me. And likewise, if you stand on the stage, you can see the bimah. For me, this was a physical representation of my soul: half musical-theatre, half Judaism. By becoming the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah nearly four years ago, and then by taking part in Gypsy, I was unifying these two parts of my life in a way I had never believed possible. I had assumed, incorrectly, that I wouldn't be able to find God or a sense of holiness in the theatrical world.
Ask any child, "Where is God?" and she will respond, "Everywhere!" Though we have been virtually programmed to give this response, we might not actually believe it. We might feel that, in order to truly access God, we must be in a particular place or room, like a synagogue or a sanctuary. We might also worry that without particular items in that space, like a Torah or a siddur, God is not present. We also probably assume that without the right words or melodies, God doesn't hear our prayers. Unfortunately, these ways of thinking prohibit us from finding the Divine in the myriad experiences (even the most mundane) of our daily lives.
In these cases, I remember the text from this week's parashah: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). The portion this week is quite concerned with all of the furnishings for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which will become our holiest space as we wander through the wilderness. We read about the exact measurements of the various fabrics to be used, and which precious metal to use for what item. The level of detail seems to imply that only the best is appropriate as our ancestors build a dwelling place for God. Additionally, the text seems to teach us that if God is dwelling in the Mishkan, then perhaps God is not dwelling elsewhere.
Yet I know that God is, indeed, everywhere. There is Torah to be learned in every situation, and thus there is evidence of God's hand in it all. Everywhere we go and every act we perform has the potential to be sacred.
One of my favorite Talmudic texts takes this idea to the extreme, but makes the point quite well:
Rav Kahana once came and lay under the bed of Rav. He heard how Rav first spoke with his wife, and then laughed with her, and only then attended to his needs, that is, his marital obligations . . . Rav said to him: Kahana, are you here?! Go out, for it is not proper that you be here! Rav Kahana said to him: This, too, is Torah, and I must study it! (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 62a).
This, too, is Torah. Such simple yet profound words! Kahana believed that his teacher's actions were all holy, even the act of making love to his wife. Now, I'm not encouraging anyone to follow me home and watch me apply my mascara, but the lesson is important nonetheless. Everything we do has the possibility of holiness within it. It is up to us to allow the holiness to emerge.
What made my participation in Gypsy Torah? I was given the ability to make new connections with congregants of all ages. Through my behavior, I could strive to inspire and bring joy to many. I was part of an activity that exemplified the name beit k'neset, "house of gathering," and provided another way in for those who wished to be involved in synagogue life. I needn't have assumed that the stage at my synagogue was opposite the bimah; rather, I learned to see it as part of the same, sacred space.
Our ancestors in the wilderness required a specific space into which they could welcome God. And many of us feel a meaningful connection to our own congregations' buildings and sanctuaries. But these places need not be the only place we find a feeling of sanctity. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was known to say, "God is only where you let God in" (Aryeh Kaplan, Inner Space [Jerusalem: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1990], p. 160). Therefore, we all can decide to let God in wherever, and whenever, we can.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column, which is featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
"The Lord 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" (Exodus 25:2).
As a Jewish educator, I read the very first two lines of Parashat T'rumah (Exodus 25:1-2) with two related but distinct thoughts of how we might translate the combination of "contribution and commitment" for an educational setting.
The first thought speaks to our teachers. Teaching can be a lonely profession. For many Jewish educators, our congregations and institutions still do not recognize the value of being part of a professional learning community. For others who are lucky enough to work in a setting that encourages teachers to participate in professional learning experiences there are great rewards. Teachers are able to develop a true sense of commitment to one another and feel appreciated for the individual contributions they bring to the community. These teachers see their contributions are a way to support each other. They are able to create a sacred space of trust and honesty in which they help one another grow as professionals. Whether teaching is considered an art or a science, we recognize the possibility for deepening one's knowledge and improving one's skills as a shared commitment to excellence.
We are told that, "you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved." Ultimately, we learn that the Mishkan is built out of the goodness found in each individual. As professional colleagues, we learn to appreciate one another for the strength and wisdom that each of us brings to the learning community. As we acknowledge the power of professional learning for our teachers, we can see the implications for our students as well. The Kotzk Rebbe, brilliantly conveys this notion when he states, "If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so" (see Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom [New York: William Morrow and Co., 1994], p. 344).
When our teachers are engaged and committed to ongoing learning, our students perceive them as authentic role models. The text leads us to understand that we as Jewish educators are poised to view our commitment to learning as the fulfillment of a commitment to the larger community of parents and students.
I suggest that this notion of "commitment and contribution" can also apply to our students. In a very significant way, Jewish educators must see the potential in each student and honor the uniqueness of each individual. In reading the phrase, "who hears so moves him (or her)," Umberto Cassuto points out that this request "shall not be an obligatory but a voluntary act, according to each man's liberality: that is every person who wishes, whether he be rich or poor, whether he gives much or little" (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus [Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967]).
I am reminded of the verse in Proverbs where we read, "Educate the child according to his own way-so when he grows old he will not stray from it" (Proverbs 22:6).
Once again we learn from this parashah that each individual, teacher, and student has the potential to make a unique contribution to the community.
Dr. Evie Rotstein is the director of the New York School of Education at HUC-JIR.
T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 451–472