February 7, 2008
Detail of the week
During the winter months, from 7-8 p.m. every Saturday night, children and their fathers are invited to learn Torah together. Small rectangular tables are arranged in a large hall, and on many of those tables you will see a father learning with his child. I was one of those fathers recently, and I was there to learn with my 8-year-old son Noah.
The rabbi who runs their fast-growing Sephardic minyan, Rabbi Yehuda Moses, handed us a couple of Chumashim, and we flipped right to the parsha of the upcoming week, Terumah.
I knew that Terumah was full of excruciating detail, so I tried to spin it for Noah with a little philosophy on the importance of details in the Torah, especially with something as holy as the building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary). My philosophy seemed to bore him, though, so I decided to dive right into the details.
For about the next 45 minutes or so, we went through every word of the parsha and analyzed every diagram. I wanted to keep the flow, so we didn't stop for the commentaries at the bottom of the page. We stayed with the word of God. We learned, for example, how God commanded the Jews to make an "Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length; a cubit and a half its width; and a cubit and a half its height" and to cover it "with pure gold" and "make on it a gold crown all around."
We read God's instructions for building the Table: "You shall make a Table of acacia wood, two cubits its length, a cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall cover it with pure gold and you shall make for it a gold crown all around. You shall make for it a molding of one handbreadth all around, and you shall make a gold crown on the molding all around. You shall make for it four rings of gold and place the rings upon the four corners of its four legs. The rings shall be opposite the molding as housing for the staves, to carry the Table...."
For the Menorah, we read more instructions: "You shall make a Menorah of pure gold, hammered out shall the Menorah be made, its base, its shaft, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms shall be hammered from it. Six branches shall emerge from its sides, three branches of the Menorah from its one side and three branches of the Menorah from its second side; three cups engraved like almonds on the one branch, a knob and a flower, and three cups engraved like almonds on the next branch...."
We continued with the instructions for the covers of the Tabernacle: "You shall make the Tabernacle of ten curtains -- twisted linen with turquoise, purple and scarlet wool -- with a woven design of cherubim shall you make them. The length of a single curtain twenty-eight cubits, and the width four cubits for each curtain, the same measure for each curtains...."
On and on we read, page after page of detailed instructions with a level of precision you might find at a Swiss watch factory. It was tedious and repetitive, but I was trusting that the word of God would not bore my son.
Strangely enough, it didn't. But how could that be? How could all this mind-numbing detail not bore a kid with a Sony PlayStation-designed attention span?
I'm not sure I have an answer, but I know this: Any religion where the main book can read like a Home Depot instruction manual must have something amazing going for it. The spirituality is so hidden, the morality so subtle, the inspiration so obscure, that a few-thousand years later, we're still trying to figure it out.
It's the exact opposite of a self-help book with brilliantly crafted nuggets of inspiration. Our book is not consumer-driven. It doesn't beg to be loved. It doesn't try to be clear. It doesn't even try to appear relevant.
It's the word of God, and it's our story. Take it or leave it -- or wallow in it.
Sure, we have our moments of beautiful clarity, like the Ten Commandments. But for my money, Judaism stands out when it gives you the tedious, the mysterious and the uncomfortable and challenges you to make it your own.
Too often, I've seen how rabbis and outreach groups are so intent on making Judaism "relevant" that they hide all the arcane details and go right to the meaningful lessons. They will take one small item from the parsha of the week and build an edifice of life lessons around it. One of the best Jewish Web sites, Aish.com, has a formidable array of teachings on the parsha of the week, but nowhere on their site will you find the actual parsha itself -- not even a recap of the story! What is everybody so afraid of? That we will read God's words and make our own interpretations?
It's a credit to the Torah that it reads like a story and not a sermon or a sales pitch. We should do more to honor this story -- with all its warts and details -- even when it sounds like an instruction manual. When the average person today is exposed to 2,000 commercial messages a day, a story that doesn't try to sell to you is a welcome break -- especially one that comes from God.
Maybe that's why my boy seemed so happy reading about cubits, rods, knobs and curtains; either that or he heard another story about the rabbi ordering some pizza.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.