Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This week felt to me like a comedy of errors. My son came down with a cold which he was kind enough to share with me. So on Saturday morning, I woke up with laryngitis. The problem was that I was invited to speak as a guest rabbi – but giving a sermon is a little tricky if you can’t speak! Having laryngitis any other week would be no problem, but the one week I needed to speak, I couldn’t.
On Monday morning, the gas in our house went out; my son Jeremy had apparently inadvertently triggered the earthquake shut off valve with his basketball. My week was filled with these types of minor but annoying problems. There’s a Yiddish expression: “Mann traoch, Gott lauch,” which means ‘man plans, God laughs.’ This week reminded me that God has a great sense of humor.
As I was encountering minor blunders, the Jewish people seemed to be making some errors with potentially major implications. During Biden’s trip to Israel, the Israeli government announced a plan to build new housing in East Jerusalem which caused tension between Israel and the US. Then, at the Western Wall, Orthodox Jews threw chairs at a group of Jewish women who were praying to mark the new month of Nisan. Also, this week a bill was brought before the Israeli Parliament which would have made converts to Judaism living in Israel ineligible for Israeli citizenship. (Thankfully, the bill was tabled for the time being.) Since Passover is celebrated in Nisan, the month is supposed celebrate liberation. Instead, the new month was accompanied with much troubling news.
Indeed, this week’s Torah portion also seems like a list of everything that could possibly go wrong. The portion begins the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) by outlining the instructions for animal sacrifices. God explains to Moses: “If a person sins unwittingly against any of the commandments”… then give this type of offering. Each paragraph begins with a problem or mistake that could be made deliberately or inadvertently, and then stipulates what to do to rectify each situation. All the sacrifices follow this pattern except the Zevach Sh’lamim: (‘the offering of well-being). The word sh’lamim is from the word shalem (meaning whole), which is from the same root as shalom, peace. If by some miracle, everything goes well, then there’s an offering for that too!
Although the system of animal sacrifices is foreign to us, the underlying message of the portion still resonates today. Life is unpredictable, but no matter what happens, there is a way back to God, to ourselves, to the sense of wholeness that we crave.
People often say: “Everything turns out for the best” – which is utterly absurd. The Torah portion is more realistic than that. The parasha recognizes that sometimes things do go terribly awry. Some of our dreams go up in smoke, and we have to make painful sacrifices for all that we achieve. When we err, we need to atone and take difficult steps to amends. But no matter what, there’s a path back to God.
In ways large and small, life has a way of reminding us of all that we can’t control. For some reason, having children heightens the unpredictability of life. Yet it also heightens our sense of wonder when by some miracle, we do feel okay and are able to accomplish something that we planned.
Let’s hope that this Passover ushers in a greater spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding. Through the ups and downs of daily living, despite all the mistakes we make along the way, we can make our lives an offering of wholeness to God.
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March 10, 2010 | 3:13 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Sunday was my daughter Hannah’s third birthday party, and I spent the few days prior baking her birthday cake. On Thursday, I bought the ingredients and on Friday I baked two rectangular cakes. Saturday night, I decorated the cake. First, I made brown, beige, and pink frosting. I then shaped the cake like Dora the Explorer, frosted it, and wrote Happy Birthday across the belly.
I don’t cook much in general, and I’m not an artsy kind of person. But for some reason, for my kids’ birthdays, I become obsessed and feel compelled to make this elaborate cake. Every year, my husband asks: Why can’t we just buy a cake from the store? Wouldn’t that be easier? He’s right; it would be far simpler to buy a cake (which would take about 10 minutes to buy rather than three days to make). However, my mom always baked our cakes with us as children, and even though baking the cake takes longer, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people also are engaged in a consuming art project. In the parasha, God gives extensive instructions on how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which housed the Ark and the tablets during the forty year desert trek. These detailed architectural plans fill nearly the entire last third of the book of Exodus. Thirteen chapters of the Torah are devoted to this topic. By contrast, the creation of the world takes only two chapters!
The instructions for making the tabernacle are incredibly specific and frankly tedious to read. Why then does the Torah devote so much attention to this topic?
The reason lies in a verb that repeats incessantly in this week’s parasha. The verb asa which means ‘to make’ appears no less than times 93 in this week’s Torah reading. By making the physical sanctuary, the people were also creating a spiritual space for God within themselves. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (a nineteenth century Hasidic master) explained that each person should fashion a sanctuary in their heart for God to dwell there.
The reason the Torah devotes so much attention to the mishkan construction is the same as why I feel compelled to bake the birthday cake each year. When cooking with my children, we create a kind of magic. The joy of the birthday begins not on the day of the party but in the anticipation of baking together. It’s my way to thank God for another year of life.
Likewise, after fleeing Egypt and entering the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people needed to do an art project for God. They longed to thank God for the covenant – not through words but by making something beautiful. They yearned to express their gratitude for their precious freedom and newfound relationship with the divine. Just as a newly married couple enjoys the task of furnishing and decorating their new apartment together, the people relished building this sacred space for God.
When we were finally done with the three day ordeal of baking and making the cake, Hannah turned to me and said, “Wow, Mom, it’s Dora!” At that moment, I smiled and knew that all the effort was worth it. I imagine that my mom and God were smiling too from above.