D’VAR TORAH ON MARCH 4, 2011 FOR SHABBAT ACROSS AMERICA
The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Pekuday, is one that is very special to our family. When our son, Adam, was Bar Mitzvah in Topeka, in 1999, he read from this week’s Torah portion (which is usually combined with last week’s portion, Vayakheil). When I gave my obligatory senior sermon as a rabbinic student on March 7, 1981, 30 years ago this weekend, the Torah reading was P’kuday, So, I have had many years to think about the meaning of this section of the Torah. Something struck me in a different way this year about certain words used in this reading,
The words which caught my eye this year aren’t just words: they are names. And they aren’t just any names – they are the names of the two artisans who were put in charge of designing and building the tabernacle, the house of worship for the Israelites in the wilderness. We probably don’t often think about what our names mean, whether in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or whatever their origin might be. For me, my first name in Hebrew – PERETZ – is one of Jacob’s grandsons in the Bible, but it means to “burst forth.” My middle Hebrew name, LAYB, is actually Yiddish for “lion.” Hopefully, those names combine to keep me focused, firm, creative, enthusiastic and energetic, but NOT ferocious!!!
The names of the two chief architects of the Tabernacle offer us a hint at what it takes to build a sacred community – and, perhaps, any type of community. The first of these two specially-skilled Israelites was named BEZALEL ben (son of) URI ben CHUR. You movie buffs out there may have already caught the source in this passage for title of the epic tale Ben Hur. My Dad always told me that the name HUR (CHUR in Hebrew) came right from this passage in the book of Exodus. Chur means child in most ancient Near Eastern Languages. So the grandfather of the chief artisan is a CHILD, perhaps signifying that all human beings are children of the divine. The father’s name is URI – if you know the word OR, which means light, you could guess that URI means MY LIGHT. So the CHILD of the divine, the grandfather, through his son URI, offers LIGHT to the grandson, B’TZAL-EL, which means “in the shadow of God.” Bezalel’s entire name converges into a humble realization of being connected to all members of the human family, who, when they open their eyes, can see a light of wisdom and insight that enables them to realize that they live in the shadow of God. As we look around this sanctuary, we see light, the NEIR TAMID, the Eternal Light, the Menorot, – visual signs of enduring faith and our opportunity to gain light – inspiration, vision and learning. And how do we benefit from the light and from living in the shadow of God? We find an answer in the name of the other artisan, OHOLIAV ben ACHISAMACH. In this case, the father’s name literally translates as “my brother is a support,” reminding us that supporting one another is essential if a community is going to stand and sustain itself.. And the son’s name, OHOLIAV, means something like “The Father/Parent is my tent,” or it could even mean that “The Father/Parent is my guiding light.” One explanation of this name noted that the fires in the tents of people who dwelled in a desert served like a beacon – an early version of a GPS. When we consider the names of both of the artisans, Bezalel, “in the shadow of God,” and Oholiav, “father/parent is my tent or my guiding beacon,” we have a perfect metaphor of what a sacred community can bring to us: a sense of always being in God’s presence, under God’s protection as we move along a path that enables us to see the spark of the divine in each other’s eyes and in every person. It is that realization, in our tradition, that can lead us to support each other by sharing our wisdom, skills, energy and optimism.
There is one more word to add to this list. The name of our congregation – Yisrael – Israel. Some commentators explained that Yisrael means “to struggle with God,” as explained in the section where Jacob wrestled with a divine being and was given his new name. Others have said it could be taken from the words YASHAR EL, where EL means God and YASHAR comes from the root words which translates as upright, straight, and just. YASHAR is the root for the Hebrew word Y’sharim, which means just and righteous people who follow a path of integrity. Psalm 112 verse 7 declares: ZARACH BACHOSHECH OR LA’YSHARIM CHANUN V’RACHUM V’TZADIK – For the Y’SHARIM, the goodhearted, a light of grace, mercy and justice shines in the darkness.
We have heard many cries resounding all over the world in recent weeks calling upon governmental leaders to show greater respect and justice towards people at all levels of society. The best response to those cries is the one that comes from a higher place. We know how much any community enlivens and enriches itself when it sees itself as living in the shadow of God. For any Jewish community, the moral insights and wisdom from our tradition have the potential to take us to that higher place, where we can gain a deeper understanding about the meaning of justice, equity and freedom in today’s world. May we continue to see the light of Torah as it illumines our path, leading us to take refuge under the shadow and protection of the Oneness inside of us and all around us that permeates all creation and leads us to say with sincerity and hope – HINEI MAH TOV U-MAH NA-EEM, SHEVET ACHIM GAM YACHAD – how good and how pleasant it is when people – all people - dwell together in unity.
May this light continue to be our guide – and let us say amen.