To Proceed with Purpose
Late on Tuesday evening, I began the daunting task of preparing the chanting for this week’s Torah reading, Vayakhel Pekudei HaChodesh. Vayakhel and Pekudei are the last two sections of the book of Exodus and when the calendar requires that they be read together (usually the case every two out of three years), the reading contains a whopping 214 verses. As this week is also the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan, we add a reading called HaChodesh, which introduces us to the redemptive narrative of our approaching Pesach festival. Whereas most maftir (concluding readings) passages are between 3 and 5 verses in length, HaChodesh weighs in with an additional 20 verses bringing our grand total to 234 verses, the second longest “Torah reading experience” in the entire calendar year!
I often advise my b’nei mitzvah students that the only way to learn a passage from the Torah is through practice, revision, more practice, and more revision. It isn’t easy to transfer from the tikkun text (with vowels and cantillation markings) to the script of the Torah with no points of assistance. So I sat in bed, doing just that, chanting out loud, chanting to myself, making reminder markings on my page, and finding myself a bit bored.
Wait a second. Did I just write that? Did I truly feel that way? Yes, and I think it’s appropriate to mention it here in our synagogue blog. I have often encountered people (congregants and non-members alike) who tell me how bored they feel when they come to synagogue, how they find it so difficult to find an entry point, a place of connection and meaning. So what could it mean for a rabbi, a spiritual and communal leader, a (usually) passionate Jew, to admit that he encountered some ennui (notice how I hesitate to use the word “boredom”) in preparing to read from our most sacred ancestral text?
A possible response to such feelings can be found in this week’s parashah. Vayakhel and Pekudei tell us of the beautiful, detailed construction of the Tabernacle, and the design of the priestly garments (concepts introduced to us a few weeks ago in Terumah and Tetzaveh). At one stage, Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel…and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills…And God has given both him and Oholiab…the ability to teach others.” Bezalel and Oholiab then lead the construction of the Tabernacle, putting all of the voluntary gifts given by the Israelites to good use.
In our ongoing search for meaning in our lives, it is often possible for us to lose a sense of our purpose. But perhaps the reminder of this week’s parashah is to remember and be aware of the skills that God has given us, to appreciate our own wisdom, our own understanding, as well as our ability to teach and to guide others. Recognizing all of the gifts that God has given us enables us also to appreciate the greatest gift of all – the gift to inspire other people and help them to find meaning in their lives too.
Being part of the synagogue community, where we regularly have the chance to reflect and to learn, helps us to internalize the beautiful messages of our tradition – and often to overcome the doldrums that may seep into our lives, without our even knowing.