Friday, February 12, 2016

Parashat Terumah and the Midrash for TatJews

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). This is when the people are told to bring all their gifts to Moses for the building of the Tabernacle, and Moses seemingly gets the blueprints for how it is to be constructed, although those instructions are not explicitly shown in the Torah. At the end of the last parasha, Moses ascended into the cloud of God and was consumed by the mist and the fire on the mountain top and disappeared for forty days and forty nights. Immediately following this beautiful and intense description of Moses encounter with God, the Torah proceeds with a seemingly profane list of material things that will be needed to build the Sanctuary in which God can dwell on Earth.
The idea that God needs such banal objects in order to be among the people of Israel, that God needs a physical dwelling place on Earth, would likely be a difficult concept for Moses. According to a midrash from the Tanhuma Yashan Shemini explains that Moses had particular difficulty with the fashioning of the menorah to go inside the Tabernacle. God, being a patient and understanding teacher, engraves the patterns upon Moses’s hands, and this is the meaning of verse 40 in Chapter 25 of Exodus, “Look and fashion them according to their patterns.” The patterns, according to the Midrash, are on Moses’s hands, etched in so that he not only can refer to them visually but can retain the memory of the tactile experience of how they should be shaped. As with the mark of the bris, this is an incision into the flesh with can never leave and will be forever a marker of God’s relationship with Moses and the people of Israel.
About a month ago, at a recent potluck, the topic of tattoos came up at a table, and I admit I was a little surprised by how generally open and positive the conversation was. Tattoos are a taboo subject for many Jewish people, even progressive communities in which individual members may be tattooed and in which the general population is not traditionally observant. The most recent Reform Responsa on this topic still rules that tattooing for the sake of body art (as opposed a tattoo as part of a medical procedure) should be considered “pointless destruction of the human form,” and an insult to the Maker. A footnote on the responsa is clear that the mark of the tattoo should in no way be compared to the mark of circumcision, and yet that is precisely what Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg does with the story from Midrash Tanhuma: “The transcendent fires are, essentially, tattooed onto his hand …. As with circumcision, Moses’s hand-inscription ivolves an incision into the skin which ‘never leaves,’ but is not innate, which is interior and exterior at the same time,” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus).
Having the menorah engraved on his skin, Moses is now able to grasp at the plans and patterns for the building of the Tabernacle and all that will adorn it. The symbol left forever represents something that is beyond the simple visual of the tattoo or the sense memory left from their marking. Zornberg also notes that the word for “lawgiver,” which the Talmud calls Moses, rightly so, also means “engraver.” Engravings on the skin can be reminders and symbols of rules to follow, mantras to live by, markers of community and belonging. Some of you, particularly those who recall the conversation at the potluck to which I referred earlier, may know that I have two small tattoos on my forearms. They were not put there by God and they do not hold blueprints for God’s physical dwelling place on Earth, but they do hold Torah for me. They are reminders and symbols of rules to follow, mantras to live by, and a memory of one no longer on Earth: to love myself and my neighbor equally, to appreciate the world in spite of its difficulties, to honor my family, and, a little like Moses’s menorahs, to create space in my life for Divine presence.
I recognize that tattoos are pretty unambiguously against Jewish law. I understand why many people who otherwise don’t follow Halakha feel uncomfortable with tattoos and why some take solace in the fact their discomfort is supported by Judaism. I don’t mean to suggest that tattoos should become more accepted in Jewish communities or that this is an issue on par with other inclusion topics I might talk about. But I couldn’t ignore this Midrash when I came upon it in Zornberg’s book. The framing of Moses’s engraved hands as an essential tool in his ability to move onward in his quest to lead the Jewish people and create space among them for God deeply resonated with me. If you are someone who is generally uncomfortable with body art, I would like to suggest that when you come across tattooed Jews, or tatjews, as I like to call them, you consider what Torah may have inspired those tattoos, and what Divine quest that person is fortified for now that they have the blueprints on their body. If you are a tatjew, I would like to suggest you open up about your Torah that inspires your tattoos and how often you look at them years later to still garner strength from their symbolism. I never even really noticed people’s tattoos before I got one myself, and now I love to hear about the histories and inspirations behind them, and especially from fellow Jews.

This Shabbat, as we read and learn about the beginning process of building the Mishkan, may we consider what blueprints we may need to bring holiness into our own dwelling places. May we consider what patterns and symbols we would want etched in the forefront of our minds, if not bodies. May we find strength from those patterns and symbols, and success in our own mishkan-building. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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