Friday, January 31, 2014

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Pete Seeger and the Mishkan - Terumah 5774

If you know anything about folk music, you know that Pete Seeger sang an assortment of Hebrew songs, even though he was not Jewish. In fact, his group, The Weavers, had a hit in 1950 with a song that was on the flip side (remember flip sides?) of their squeaky-clean cover of Leadbelly's Goodnight, Irene. That song was Tzena, Tzena:
צאנה צאנה צאנה צאנה הבנות וראינה
חיילים במושבה
אל נא אל נא אל נא אל נא אל נא תתחבאנה
מבן חייל איש צבא
Tzena, tzena, tzena, tzena habanot, ur’ena
Hayalim bamoshava.
Al-na, al-na, al-na, al-na, al-na tithabena
miben-hayil ish tzava.

Go forth, daughters, and see soldiers in the moshava (agricultural settlement)
Do not be afraid of a man of valor, one of the army*

Pete Seeger passed away at age 94 this week. Among the remarkable things that he was known for in his long and varied career as a folksinger was the knack for bringing the audience into his music.

I saw him once in 1990, when I was a sophomore at Cornell. He played in Bailey Hall, a 2,000 seat on-campus venue that has a certain intimacy about it. When Pete asked us to sing along, we did. He stood alone on the stage with his banjo, a skinny, affable septuagenarian that raised his arm and beckoned us into the music. It was a transformational experience. We all joined in, in one voice. (Well, almost all. My physical chemistry professor, the most boring lecturer in upstate New York, was seated a row in front of me with his wife, and he nodded off.)

What endowed that experience with magic was the physical chemistry, if you will, that occurs when the fourth wall is broken, when the audience becomes the performance. And you might say that this is the kind of magic that took place in the mishkan, the portable worship-space that is explicitly described in today's parashah, and for most of the rest of the book of Shemot / Exodus.

I have often wondered why the Torah spends so much time on the details of the mishkan, particularly when it spends such a small amount of space on crucial events in the lives of the main characters of the Torah. For example, the Aqedah, the Binding of Isaac, takes all of 19 verses (Gen. 22:1-19). The episode with the burning bush takes a mere 39 (Ex. 3:1 - 4:17). The flood story? 77 (Gen. 6:11 - 9:19). And the mishkan gets a grand total of 454 verses over a total of 13 chapters (Ex. 25 - 31 & 35:4 - 40:38). This is a stunning amount of detail for an over-decorated tent that was in use for a very narrow slice of Jewish history.

Why the detail? Why the repetition? You might think of these as academic questions. But they are connected to the more serious question of why, which is, why are these 454 verses of any relevance to us today as contemporary American Jews?

The answer is that the mishkan is the model for our ongoing engagement with holiness. The 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides (aka Ramban) was also perplexed by the large fraction of the book of Shemot dedicated to the mishkan. Ramban felt the need to write a special introduction to this parashah explaining that the mystery behind the mishkan is that after Moses received the tablets on Mt. Sinai, the few basic principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments, that God would need a way to continue that conversation about holiness. And so God commanded the building of the mishkan to be that vehicle of ongoing engagement.

The Torah itself justifies the building of the mishkan right up in the opening verses in the parashah (Ex. 25:8):

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.
Ve-asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.
They shall make Me a holy place, and I will dwell among them.

What is a miqdash? A place of holiness. You can see within it the root qof-dalet-shin, the shoresh from which all words for holiness are derived.

Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot buy a miqdash anywhere. You cannot get it online. Holiness is something that only we create, and we do not create it through designing beautiful buildings for worship. (Some of you may be aware that we are currently working on a capital campaign for improvements around THIS beautiful building, which is this community’s miqdash, our place of holiness.)

What made the mishkan, which the Torah deliberately calls a miqdash, holy is not the fancy materials. Not the gold, silver, lapis lazuli, the threads in royal colors and so forth. Rather, what made it holy was the participation of the Israelites in building it and taking part in an ongoing way in the rituals featured therein.

And just like a performer on stage, like Pete Seeger, created transformative moments by engaging the audience, by breaking that fourth wall, so too did Moses and Aaron and, frankly, God create holiness by engaging the people in the construction of the mishkan. What would have been merely a mishkan, literally a resting place for God, became a miqdash, a holy precinct.

And so too for us today. A well-designed synagogue building with soaring architecture and fancy amenities means nothing without the people inside it! Our presence, our participation, our engagement make this place holy. We make this a sanctuary, a miqdash. Without us, it's just a building.

Yes, this bimah might look like a stage. But there is no fourth wall here. Everybody in this room is engaged in the holy act of learning together right now; everybody is a part of the building of community right now. Furthermore, I am not speaking merely about services, about tefillah / prayer. What makes this a miqdash and a qehillah qedoshah, a holy community, is everything else that goes on here and in the context of  Temple Israel:
  • learning
  • celebrating
  • grieving
  • schmoozing (for Jews, that’s also a holy act)
  • marking lifecycle events (weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot millah, etc.)
  • giving tzedaqah
  • visiting the sick
  • comforting those who mourn
  • yes, even eating together
  • etc.

It is our participation in those things that make this a holy place. Not God, but us! Those are the reasons we need community. We need each other. We need you.

Without places like this, without a community like this, how would we grieve, or celebrate, or learn about our tradition?

Ve-asu: Let them make the miqdash, says God. And I will rest among them. That’s us. That’s you.

We need you. Every single one of you. Every single person here. We cannot afford to let anyone in our midst NOT be involved on an ongoing basis. And that is why I, Rabbi Stecker, Cantor Frieder, and the lay leadership are constantly looking for new ways to connect, a new way to identify, a new way to participate. We need to continue to build community, individually, in small groups and in large, from the ground up.

So do not be surprised if I call you to talk about ways that you can be involved. Because you make the miqdash. Do not be afraid to pass through the fourth wall. Your community needs you.

Shabbat shalom. 

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, February 1, 2014.)

*The Weavers sang it first with English lyrics which they composed:

Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena
Can't you hear the music playing
In the city square
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena
Come where all our friends will find us
With the dancers there

Tzena, Tzena join the celebration
There'll be people there from every nation
Dawn will find us laughing in the sunlight
Dancing in the city square

Tzena, Tzena, come and dance the Hora
One, two, three, four
All the boys will envy me for
Tzena, Tzena, when the band is playing
My heart's saying
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena