Ari S. Lorge | March 3, 2017
In this week’s Torah portion, we receive the instructions for creating many features of the Mishkan, that portable sanctuary we built in the wilderness. We’re told about the altar, the ark of the covenant, and the menorah – the lampstand that became the symbol of Judaism. Our sages never read this section of Torah as merely a sacred Ikea instruction manual – even though it reads like one. If we are describing God’s dwelling place, then each piece of it must communicate something timeless. So let’s focus on that most important of symbols; the Menorah. What are we told? The Torah declares that the Menorah is to be made of a single piece of pure gold. Rashi notes, ‘it is not to be made of parts, nor shall the branches and lamps be made of different pieces and afterward joined together in the manner of welders.” No it shall be made of one piece. Why was that so important? Because the menorah symbolizes achdut; the unity of the Jewish people. While we may be broken into different communities and live in different lands, we are all branches of a single menorah; all connected by our common heritage. It is a beautiful symbolic meaning. But often we need experience to make symbolic meaning real.
It became real for me at age 12. My home synagogue joined a partnership program with the tiny Jewish community of Konotop in present day Ukraine. Like many Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union, Jews in Konotop had little means to lead Jewish lives. There was no clergy, no Torah, no education materials. Our partnership was to help change that. A few leaders from their community came to Skokie to build relationships. The delegation came over to our house for Shabbat. I was a pre-teen so I was skeptical – because as a pre-teen I was skeptical about everything. We didn’t appear to have all that much in common. We didn’t speak the same language so communication was difficult. I didn’t feel connected. 1 of the Konotopians played guitar, so after dinner we broke out some instruments. Maybe we could connect that way. We tried everything in our repertoire. Jewish camp songs; no. Classic synagogue music. No. Still no connection. But then someone started: tumballal tumbalala tumbalalaika shpiel balalaika frelech zol zoyn…and all of sudden they joined in; they sang a verse in yiddish and we would do one in English. Back and forth the music growing louder and more confident and joyous. A universal Jewish language. Peoplehood. Something bound us together that was greater than language, culture, and homeland. For Jews this is an important lesson. A vital one. But we need to experience it for it to be real.
I recently had the privilege of traveling with our 10th grade confirmation class to Spain. For our students, these trips are an opportunity to experience Jewish peoplehood – to transform it from concept to a felt reality. We leave the shtetl of New York City, to connect with a very different Jewish community. In Spain, we saw towns that once were brimming with medieval Jewish life, now reduced to museums and abandoned cemeteries. These sites were impactful in their own right. But some of the richest learning came from our time with the small Jewish community that is working to re-assert itself in modern day Spain. We visited both the only liberal synagogue and the only Jewish Day School in Madrid. Our students journal as we travel, and if you’ll indulge me, on their behalf, I would like to share some of their reflections.
They began rather unsure of their connection to these small Jewish communities. One student wrote, “The contrast between the old synagogues from the medieval Golden Age of Jewish Spain, and the reality of Modern Jewish Spain is huge…To see the great remnants of this once large community juxtaposed with the modern struggling community is hard.” Another said, “My first impression of the synagogue was skepticism because it was so small. It had no outward sign of Judaism or that it even was a synagogue.” But, after the initial skepticism something changed. That same student reflected, “I realized that it wasn’t so different than Central. Sure it was smaller, the service was in Spanish, but the Hebrew was the same, the atmosphere was the same, and the community acted the same..” Upon our visit to the Jewish Day School a student wrote, “Our differences as Jews proved mostly insubstantial during this trip; they did not form a barrier between the orthodox students in the school and our group. We all got along well, and by the end were exchanging Facebook/Instagram information and hugging each other goodbye.”
For our students, this experience of Jewish life outside of Manhattan was a rich discovery or reminder of the power of Jewish peoplehood and our responsibility as American Jews to the other branches of the menorah of the Jewish people. Another student summed it up well when he wrote, “I’ve heard all this talk of this NYC bubble that I am living in…I guess another layer was exposed to me last night… Shabbat in Madrid was still magical, there was still an open and warm environment, clergy, and music. But despite these similarities, Shabbat in Madrid was completely different in its own ways. Instead of turning around from my seat and seeing hundreds of people, I saw 50…Instead of seeing our large synagogue, I saw a small room. Instead of seeing, a full band and choir, I saw one piano. Despite all these differences, one thing remained the same: I was celebrating Shabbat. The parallels between Judaism at Central and Judaism in Spain were hard to find. Jews have a very different life in Spain. Yet, somehow, I felt at home…Leaving the services, I realized that Judaism is not what I see at Central, and it is not just what I see in Madrid, (or Israel), it’s everything combined. We are the same, and we are different.”
I feel so lucky to be a rabbi in a community that doesn’t merely teach Jewish peoplehood, but creates the environment for our students to live it, feel it, and act on it. For when a community teaches this we fulfill the timeless aspect of the commandment. “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold…and the lampstand shall be made of one piece…” May we always remember that the menorah that is the Jewish people has one foundation and one base.
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