TORAH MINUTE - TZAVEH MAR, 1993
Last weeks Torah reading commanded us to build the Tabernacle, which accompanied the Children of Israel throughout their journey in Sinai and eventually became the Temple of Jerusalem. Traditionally, this reading is used as a reminder that we still have the obligation to build and support the Temple, which, in modern times is our community synagogue. Thus fervent appeals were made last week for donations to build the new addition, add a gymnasium or catering hall or lay the cornerstone of a new Yeshiva. Many of us however, while quick to respond to our obligation, do so with a sense of sadness as we contemplate the abandoned synagogues built by our ancestors.
We Jews are a highly mobile people, our history chronicles many journeys. The Diaspora forced our common ancestors from the Jewish Commonwealth of Israel, Pogroms brought my grandparents here from Poland, and the affluence of the fulfilled American dream allowed my parents to migrate from East New York and Brownsville to Bensonhurst and finally here to Staten Island. But where are the magnificent edifices built by generations preceding us, where we ourselves may have worshipped and studied as children? All to often, the houses of worship we so lovingly construct become the gravestones of a Jewish community which has long since disappeared. Why then, in the light of our history, should we fulfill our obligation of "Tabernacle"?
The Portion of Tzaveh provides an answer by shifting our focus from the Tabernacle itself to what occurs within its walls. Moses is given instruction in the requirements by which his brother Aaron, and his descendants, would minister within the Temple, atoning for their sins and bringing the offerings we would provide as atonement for ours.
Through Moses, Aaron is commanded to trim the lamps of the Temple with the purest olive oil which would produce the brilliant flame of the NER TAMID (Eternal Lamp), symbol of both the mission and history of the Jewish people.
Moses is next commanded to prepare the vestments worn by Kohen Gadol (High Priest) as he performed the Temple rites. Like a military uniform, the clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol would set him apart from others and compel him to concentrate on the duties he would perform on behalf of himself and the Children of Israel. These garments were the output of the finest practitioners of the needle trades. I wonder if my grandparents, all of whom were employed in New York's Garment Center practicing an ancient trade to earn a living in their adopted land, were not also driven by a higher calling - where once Haute Couture represented a tailor's labor of devotion to Hashem, when fashion was a symbol of purity and holiness instead of the modern icon of materialism and immorality.
The portion of TZAVEH continues with a description of the investiture ceremony of the Kohen Gadol and a cursory description of the sacrificial rites the newly anointed Kohen would perform when he assumes his position. Tzaveh concludes with the commandment to prepare the sacred incense and construct the special altar upon which it was burned. The symbolic meaning of the incense is found in the acrostic formed by the letters of Hebrew word for incense, KETORET. KEDUSHA, holiness, TAHARAH, purity, RACHAMIM, mercy and TIKVAH, hope.
It would seem that a cursory reading of TZAVEH would only reinforce the notion that the need to support a community house of worship is obsolete, given that the sacrificial rites are no longer practiced. Why then should modern Jews feel obligated to build a sanctuary? The Talmudic interpretation of TZAVEH leads us to an answer by explaining that study of the sacrifices holds the same weight as actually practicing them.
Rabbi's, throughout the generations, have traditionally used this concept to cajole their congregants into arriving at morning services early enough to recite the KARBONOT (Order of Sacrifices). I believe however, that the true meaning of study equating to practice has far greater implications for modern Jewry. For as long as we study TORAH to the extent each of us is capable, and through action and prayer practice it's principles, again to whatever extent we can, than, regardless of where we are, the Eternal Flame of the Tabernacle will never be extinguished.
Could the flame not be seen and felt on the Island of Biak, in the Dutch East Indies, when my father celebrated Passover there in 1944 without benefit of a synagogue, or in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 1991 where I observed Passover, such as I could having neither MATZOH nor wine? Is the flame any less brilliant for the Holocaust survivors living in our community whose example of faith in adversity has imparted upon us such a powerful ideal?
Thus it becomes clear from the study of the portion of TZAVEH, that the Tabernacle which houses the Eternal Flame of Judaism is not a physical structure which is as impermanent as the people who built it, but is, in fact, our continuing adherence to TORAH. Clearly then, the closing of an old synagogue neither extinguishes nor even dims the Eternal Flame - for elsewhere a new "Tabernacle" rises as a new generation assumes its ancient responsibility, and the NER TAMID, first kindled by Aaron, burns on in its new quarters with renewed brilliance.
I believe, with absolute conviction, that every journey a Jew makes, brings us one step closer to redemption. Our sages teach us that as the olive, which fuels the Eternal Lamp, only yields its wealth after being crushed and mangled, so our torture and martyrdom will someday result in the greatest conceivable wealth, the return to Zion. may our journeys, our suffering and our continual faith in TORAH and HASHEM allow us to witness the building and dedication of the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, BIMHAROH VEYAMENU (Speedily and in our time).