‘Build me a sanctuary’
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‘Build me a sanctuary’

ranklin Lakes shul to examine the Tabernacle's specs from many directions

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Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, left, Bob Goldberg, and Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Planks of acacia, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high, formed into an ark.

Gold overlay on the planks, on both sides.

Gold molding around them.

Gold rings, one for each side.

Acacia poles.

Instructions for inserting the poles into the rings, and the rings into the ark.

That’s just the very beginning of the multitude of instructions for building and furnishing the ark – the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them in the desert. The lists go into painstaking detail about what to build, how to build it, what to use as construction materials, and what colors to use.

Coming as they do in the middle of the book of Exodus, in parashat Trumah (read this year on February 21), these lists of largely unrecognizable things can seem like a thudding anti-climax. We have just gone through the stirring high drama of the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and then the reading of the Ten Commandments; now all of a sudden we are in a Home Depot, and all the signs there are in a foreign language.

In fact, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes said, when rabbinical students are assigned parashat Trumah for their senior sermons, as he was during his last year at the Jewish Theological Seminary, they despair. Parashat Trauma, they call it. He knows that from personal experience – 27 years ago, that rabbinical student facing a shul full of his peers, professors, family, and friends, trying to talk about dolphin-skin hangings, lampstand bases, and blue, crimson, and purple woolen loops, was him.

“Ever since then, I have had a sensitivity to these several weeks in the annual Torah-reading cycle, and the need to breathe some relevance and light and excitement into the reading,” he said.

On Sunday, Rabbi Prouser is offering a program, “Beyond Parshat Tr(a)uma,” that will, as its subtitle says, offer a way to find “spiritual meaning in the biblical blueprints of the Jewish people’s first sanctuary.”

How?

By “bringing in people who are accustomed to looking at building and furnishings from an entirely different direction than a typical pulpit rabbi would, and asking them to lend their expertise to the study of these texts,” he said.

Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman (and yes, her title, which she chose when she graduated from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y., is “rabba”), the keynote speaker, is uniquely situated for the subject. Before her ordination, she was a clinical social worker and a feng shui consultant, so she knows a great deal about spaces, about people, and about the interaction of the two. She is the founder and executive director of Rimon: Resource Center of Jewish Spirituality, and she teaches about Jewish mysticism, a subject that deeply engages her passion.

“There is a very clear sense that there is a message here,” in parashat Trumah, “that is being communicated through the use of space.” Decoding it is our challenge.

“Throughout the development of rabbinical commentary on the Torah, it seems to be that very few commentators have an understanding of the energetics of space. There are many wonderful commentaries on this parsha, but none of them deal with the ancient universal understanding of how space itself affects consciousness.

“A lot of the material that I was reading in the Torah was leaping off the page to my feng shui understanding,” she said. “I was seeing connections between the way the mishkan was developed and some theological ideas that were present at the time and were parts of ancient Israelite culture.

“Every culture would say that a sacred space is meant to be a vehicle for communication between humanity and the Divine,” she continued. Pressed for an example, she talked about how in “ancient times, the world was understood through the lens of the four primary elements – fire, water, air, and earth. They play a strong part in ancient Jewish mysticism, so within the Tabernacle itself, we have the four elements. There is the menorah, which is carrying fire; burning incense, creating a cloud, which is air; the altar table, which has 12 loaves of bread, a function of the earth, and vessels that hold water. So you have all elements right there, in the kodesh section – the holiest section.

“Each is placed in a different direction; the fire is on the south, the air element, the most ephemeral, in the west, where the Shechina” – the feminine aspect of God – “resides. The earth and water are in the north, and the entrance is in the east, where it faces the rising sun.

“Those directions are shared with other cultures,” Rabba Stern-Kaufman continued. “Imagine that you are in a desert culture,” as both the Israelite and Native Americans were. “It is hot. So very hot. The heat of the sun is most oppressive from the south; sunset, the coolest and most comfortable time of day, is in the west. You will experience relief and a sense of beauty, so the Shechina is connected with that part of the landscape.

“The relief from the sun is not like the total darkness from the north, that place of dark and heavy shadow. But you can really feel the presence of God coming in, as we do in Kabbalat Shabbat, when we sing Lecha Dodi. We are bringing in the Shechina, the feminine, soothing presence, that is associated with the western direction.”

Not only are these principles useful as we try to understand our past – they also can be used for inspiration “when we create sacred spaces or synagogues today,” Rabba Stern-Kaufman said. “That’s very much where I want to take the conversation – how do we orient our buildings? How do we incorporate or not incorporate natural elements? There are synagogue spaces that we create that facilitate a spiritual experience, a sense of connection – and others that we create that make it more difficult for us to connect.”

A good model for connection, she said, “is the way in which the Israelite camp was set up in the desert, essentially in a circle surrounding the mishkan. There was God at the center. It is a perfectly egalitarian experience. The Levites were the closest to the center – they served there – but no other tribe had an advantage over any of the others in terms of access to the Divine. Each was equally close – or equally far.

“That arrangement speaks to the possibility of creating a synagogue space in the round, as opposed to the theater model, with an audience, and the performance going on up front. That brings up all sorts of problems related to class. Changing the seating arrangement will change the quality of the experience of the people who are sitting there, and their relationship to each other as a community.”

Bob Goldberg, the president of Temple Emanuel, is an engineer and the editor of a section of an engineering journal, the IEEE Instrumentation and Measurement Magazine. He is fascinated by the parsha because he finds meaning in Trumah.

“In a way, I planted the seed for this last year,” Mr. Goldberg said. When Rabbi Prouser read the parsha last year, he talked about how difficult it was – partly because the Hebrew is hard, and partly because the message is hard to find. “While it might be hard to chant the Hebrew to the trope, there is a lot of message in it,” Mr. Goldberg recalls having told his rabbi; in fact, his journal’s overall editor, Shlomo Engelberg, wrote a column on the subject a few years ago.

“Modularity is important in making products successful,” Mr. Goldberg said. Mr. Engelberg pointed out “that the mishkan could be taken apart, moved, and put back together. It goes back several thousand years, and it is a concept that engineers are still wrestling with today.”

Another modern concept – the importance of each of the building blocks that make up a product and are necessary for its ultimate success – also comes up in the parsha. “Each one of them should be optimized, so when you put it together you have the best possible product, and if there is a problem you can find it and fix it.

“There really are a lot of engineering concepts here in terms of product development.”

He does understand why some people find the parsha less than compellingly interesting. “If you were to buy a piece of furniture to put together, you don’t really want to read the parts list out loud,” he said. “But when it’s all put together, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Another speaker, Don Argintar, also is an engineer, and according to his bio, he is a flight instructor as well. He declined to talk about his take on parsha Trumah.

Rabbi Prouser sees even more value in the program than the insights it will give into the mishkan in particular and sacred spaces in general. “For me, personally, this program is very much in keeping with the way I try to tap into the talent in the Jewish community,” he said.

“Often, talented people don’t have the chance to apply those talents to the study of Jewish texts in a serious way. But we have such a diverse, well-educated Jewish community.

“I see a big part of my job to be motivating people to use their own education, experience, and perspective to broaden our view of what Jewish tradition has to offer,” he said.

Information
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser, Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, Robert Goldberg, and Don Argintar will present

What: Beyond Parashat Tr(a)uma: Finding Spiritual Meaning in the Biblical Blueprints of the Jewish People’s First Sanctuary

When: Sunday, February 1, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

For information: Call (201) 560-0200 or email rabbi@tenjfl.org.

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