The Boring Parts of Torah

By Arthur Waskow, rabbi, director of the Shalom Center, a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, author of Godwrestling - Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, and Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life, and co-author of Tales of Tikkun.
Copyright 1996 Arthur Waskow

For twenty-five years, week in, week out, I have danced and wrestled with the Torah. I have always found new life in the weekly reading. Never, never, have I found a portion boring....

-- except for the string of readings near the end of Exodus. T'rumah (Exodus 25-27:19). On how to build the Mishkan, that portable golden sanctuary in the desert. And Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), on exactly how the high priest should dress.

Not to speak of their twins soon afterward, on the very same subjects all over again -- Vayak'heyl (Exodus 35-38:20) and Pekudeh (Exodus 38:21-40).

I confess. If it hadn't been for the Golden Calf in the middle, if there had been four weeks in a row of this drivel, I might have run wild-eyed out of shul, I might have forgotten to come back again.

All the details about how and when and where to design, and carve, and sculpt, and sew, and erect. Obsessive. Niggling. Petty. And then to repeat the whole thing, all over again in the later weekly portions!

Who cares where the grommets went? What were grommets anyway? Aha -- those connector loops and rings! But now that I know, I still don't know who cares. Who cares how long the hinges were? Who cares whether the skins were dolphin fur or badger fur, who cares whether the dyes were scarlet or purple or indigo?

No wonder the people below freaked out over Moses' prolonged absence. God kept him standing around on Sinai for forty days and nights -- and most of it was not to hear the laws of justice or the spiral of the sacred year. Most of it was to hear these details of the Golden Shrine. God's Own golden calf, you might say -- God's Own idol. Perhaps, I thought, the people picked up the vibrations of what Moses heard: lots of gold, and horns on the Altar.

Small wonder if they got confused and imagined that God wanted a horny, horned golden bull-calf. God, I kept thinking, deserved the people's response -- which was to build an idol of their own.

In other words, the only thing that I found interesting about this Torah portion was how boring it was.

Until the year that a friend of mine came back from the first great march on Washington for gay rights -- the largest march in fifteen years, she said.

She spoke on a Friday night in my congregation. She talked about the sense of joyful self-discovery, the liberation from years of secrecy, the tears of welcome that gay people gave their non-gay families and friends who marched alongside them in love and solidarity.

And then she talked about the enormous quilt, more than two blocks square, that the gay community had come to make together.

It was a Quilt of Names, a memorial for the thousands of people who had already died of AIDS. Each square was made by the friends and family of one person who had suffered and died -- most of them young, full of excitement and energy and hope until the disease laid hold of them.

A few of the squares were in dark and mournful colors. Many more were bright, crimson and purple and indigo, crocheted and knitted and embroidered with flowers and symbols and words and names. Each one a tombstone in cloth. There on the grass of the Mall in Washington, a whole graveyard in cloth. Thousands of squares.

And now the time had come, she said, to join these squares together in one gigantic quilt. Each one had been made with grommets so that it could be connected to the ones around it. Those who remembered each person who had died, those who had celebrated and remembered and memorialized each life, began to tie one grommet to another.

When the quilt was completed, she said, it was ready to be carried from city to city. A holy memorial to life much more than death, to hope much more than fear, to courage much more than pain.

The third time she mentioned "grommets," it came like a rush to me. The Mishkan, the golden Shrine. The great portable sanctuary in the wilderness, to be carried from place to place as the people journeyed. The people had come to build it with so much love, so many gifts, so much excitement, that Moses had needed to call a halt to the outpouring.

Who were these Israelites? Folks just out of slavery in Mitzraiim, (The Hebrew word for "Egypt" really means the tight and narrow place, meytzar with a dual ending like oznaiim, "two ears," and eynaiim, "two eyes." Perhaps "the narrows, "between a rock and a hard place," "between the devil and the deep blue sea," "between Scylla and Charybdis." Perhaps to begin with, it was a geographical description -- for the real Egypt of people, not maps, is in fact a long narrow country, just a few miles wide each side of the Nile. Only later, perhaps, did it come to mean a narrow-minded country.)

The Ivrim or "cross-over" folks, "trans-gressors," the Hebrews, the free-ranging people who like wetbacks swam every sea and river, danced across each boundary -- were just newly free when they started gathering colors and textures and shapes for their Mishkan. Newly ready to create their own culture, their own sense of holiness, their own art, their own music, their own stories. Their own physical space.

Each earring tossed into the simmering pot of molten gold was a gift in memory of some slave who had died sick, starving.

Each curving wooden pole and pulley was carved in memory of some boy-child bashed and beaten by the Pharaoh's bullies.

The Quilt of Names was a Mishkan, I realized with a rush.

The newly free community of gay men and lesbians were celebrating their first taste of freedom with a first act of communal responsibility -- making sure that their dead were not forgotten. Making sure that the world turned its attention to ending this plague and curing its victims. Turning what the world called their "transgressions" into freedom and community.

Building. Creating. Sewing. Weaving. Carrying. Connecting.

A Mishkan not only in the sense of a portable shrine.

A Mishkan in the sense of a Place where the Shekhinah dwells, a Place where God's presence can be felt in our very midst.

God dwells where the newly free remember their pain with tears and create their future in joy.

* * *

Since that night, for me these Torah portions about the Mishkan have gleamed with energy and life.

For me, the details of the Mishkan will never again seem boring.


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