Friday, February 21, 2014

Parashat Vayak’hal

            This week’s Torah portion is Vayak’hal, in which Moses assembles the whole people of Israel and tells them that it is time to begin building the Tabernacle, the transitory sanctuary in which G-d will reside as they wander through the wilderness. Moses tells the people to bring forth gifts for building materials, and they do so freely and abundantly. The Torah refers to them here as being “generous-hearted” and “wise-hearted” for being so forthcoming with the gifts. This week’s G-dcast, the weekly cartoon interpretation of Torah stories and occasional other Bible or holiday stories, is a beautiful song about this act of generosity and G-d’s promise to dwell among the people if they build this holy space. I highly suggest you all look it up.
            Once the materials are brought out, not everyone among the people is an architect or building contractor or construction worker or artist. Two men in particular are singled out to do the physical work of building, Bezalel and Ohaliab, and they call for other skilled workers to help. In the end, though, almost all of the building is attributed to Bezalel alone. The Midrash Tanhuma, an old book of stories explaining plot holes in the Torah, says that Bezalel simply worked harder than any of the other wise men, so the work is all attributed to him, and the others are all but forgotten.
            That may be so, but isn’t that still kind of demeaning for the others, particularly Ohaliab who is also singled out by name by G-d? We all have different skills, talents, endurance levels, were raised with different work ethics and beliefs regarding with and art. It isn’t particularly fair to hold up one wise man against another. I think we all do it a little bit, at least subconsciously. We get used to a certain level of intelligence, a certain style of art, a certain expectation of work, and when someone doesn’t meet that, we’re disappointed. When someone exceeds that by too much, we feel insecure or threatened, and may even accuse them of being show offs. When someone expects more of us than we are used to or possibly able to achieve, we feel overwhelmed and frustrated with ourselves. When someone expects way less of us than the level we know we can achieve, we feel belittled and patronized. All of those feelings are normal, but they aren’t particularly pleasant and they aren’t particularly fair to any of the people involved. Everyone should be equally recognized for the particular skills and talents they do bring to the project, and conversely, no one should ever be made to feel embarrassed or shy about letting their superiority at a particular skill shine. It’s great that Bezalel was so talented and such a hard worker. He was absolutely correct to embrace that and throw himself whole-heartedly into the work, even if it meant leaving the others in the dust. It’s also fine that the others did what they could and what was asked of them, even if it didn’t quite earn them the recognition it earned Bezalel.
            I hope all of you appreciate your own talents and skills. I hope you find something you feel called to, as Bezalel was called to build the tabernacle. Maybe it will just be a hobby, maybe it will be your favorite subject in school, maybe it will be a job someday. In any case, may you feel comfortable enough with the activity and with yourself to throw yourself whole heartedly into it, and measure yourself by your own improvement, rather than how you compare to others. May you be recognized for your talents and skills and whatever you bring to any particular effort you strive for. And most of all, may those talents, skills, or endeavors bring you happiness. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh - Dress Codes

            Quick Poll: How many of you need to dress in a uniform or according to a dress code for school or work? How does that make you feel? [I’d like some real answers here – is it comforting to know that you are dressed appropriately or does it feel oppressive and confining? Or something else entirely – maybe you don’t even think about it.]
            In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, G-d describes, in great detail, the proper uniform for the Temple Priests that Moses is to have made. This was not a simple dress code to promote modesty or professionalism as we know it today. This was a very specific uniform, that not only described the tunic (equivalent perhaps to a suit), but also included specifications for underwear and accessories. Imagine if your school dress code included mandatory jewelry and a particular pair of underpants. That seems a little absurd, doesn’t it?! I don’t think I would want to live in that world.
            But for the Israelite priests, the dress code was important to set them apart. To show to the rest of the people that these were the leaders to whom the Israelites could take their ritual and spiritual questions. While we can be very grateful that however restrictive our uniforms or dress codes they don’t specify every single article of clothing we wear, we can also learn from this week’s Torah portion the useful significance of uniforms or dress codes. Your clothes should never be what define you, but they do help to identify you to others.
            Think about this: you’re in a store and you can’t find what you’re looking for. You know to ask the person in the identifiable store uniform for help. Your doorbell rings, and you don’t like to open the door for strangers. But you can see that the person at your door now is wearing a UPS uniform, so you know it is ok to open the door and sign for your package. At school, students should all be treated as equals, and uniforms or dress codes help to establish an even footing for all students. Depending on the strictness of the dress code, clothes can still be used to help identify common interests. If you were the new kid at school and you saw someone wearing a t-shirt advertising your favorite band or movie, giving you a quick and easy way to start a conversation and make a new friend.
            The debate about uniforms and dress codes vs. clothing as an expression of free speech has always been interesting to me, because both sides of the argument are so valid. It is nice sometimes to express yourself through your fashion, and to be able to identify potentially like-minded people through clothes, and a strict uniform might prohibit that. However, a uniform would help to identify your position, job, or place, and equalize people whose fashions might reflect their economic status and cause tension or distraction in school or the work place. This week’s Torah portion illustrates the importance of clothing and of identifying ourselves to others. If you already live in resentment of your existing dress code or uniform, use this Torah portion and learn to appreciate how much more oppressive it could be, and at least you have weekends to wear whatever you want. May we all find ways to express ourselves regardless of how we dress, and appreciate whatever clothes we have. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.