Monday, February 27, 2006

284. Finally

Just about done. This was like writing a college paper, only much slower. (If I had written at this rate back then, I'd still be in college.) But I think I figured out how to say what I wanted. What follows is probably one of the longer bunches of words I'll ever post to this blog; one paragraph a day is much more my speed.

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Parashat Tetzaveh: Jewels and Seeds

When I was a child, we lived down the block from not just one, but two kosher bakeries; I think my parents moved to the neighborhood for this fact alone. My grandfather was a baker, and my mother grew up behind the counter, ankle-deep in sawdust. So bread was serious business in our household. One of my very first responsibilities was to survey a vast array of each week's selections and make the important purchase: a loaf of rye bread with caraway seeds; the darkest pumpernickel, always sliced; or perhaps egg rolls, if they weren't too yellow. I never carried a crib sheet. The rule was unspoken, but I knew I had to commit all instructions to memory, as if making them a part of myself. And when I handed my mother the white waxed-paper bag with its aroma better than any perfume, and received a hug in return, I was certain I had the best job in the world.

Parashat Tetzaveh, which describes furnishings and rituals that made the tabernacle a fitting place for God to abide (Exodus 29:45), brought to mind this same sense of being overwhelmed by dizzying, loving detail. We're told how to prepare oil for the menorah, fashion priestly robes laden with precious jewels, prepare sacrifices, and build an altar upon which to burn daily offerings of incense. I can imagine the delight of shoppers and merchants at the marketplace in ancient days as they stopped work and, amidst the dust and noise of animals, beggars and crying children, listened to songs about magnificent holy garments. Because public readings of the Torah were translated into the vernacular by a meturgeman, an instantaneous interpreter, the audience could immediately understand and envision every color and precise instruction, rich and sensual as any love song, while also hearing the rhythm of the words as each bell, pomegranate ornament, and silk thread was piled atop the next.

Even though we still listen to the chanting of the Torah, only rarely is it translated at that same instant into our native language. We rely instead upon study of the written text to figure out what's happening. And, for me, the repetitive cadences of Parashat Tetzaveh provoke a frustrating cognitive challenge when read silently. Glorious details that must have come alive to ancient listeners become little more than long, confusing lists lacking a clear relationship to the reality they represent. I struggle to approach this part of the Torah with the same awe as its initial, spare sentences describing the origin of existence.

We live in a world of sensory overload, so much information swirling around that we can barely keep track. But life has no meturgeman to highlight what's important, and so we risk losing the ability to hear our collective music: the bells on the high priest's robe (28:33), the sounds of transformation when all the pieces fit together. As a graphic designer, I'm constantly challenged to maintain a relationship between larger messages and the smaller elements they comprise--type, punctuation, imagery, often crammed into a limited space. I must do the same when I chant Torah, learning its melody from tiny symbols that won't be in the scroll at the actual moment of the service. I used to approach this as a test of memory, but think of it now as the Torah's attempt to get me to understand the bigger picture, just as I did with those childhood orders of bread. If at a key moment I had to read instructions, instead of recalling what I've internalized in memory, I might be too distracted to notice the importance of my task, or the story behind the words I sing.

On the trip to Israel this past December, we held services one morning at the Southern excavations of the Western Wall. I was reminded of those photos taken from space which zoom in closer and closer from solar system to planet, and then to continent, country, city and, finally, to blade of grass. Blue sky above the Wall's top edge yielded to stones that reached down and turned into the rows of steps upon which we sat, leading to a small bimah and the scroll open to the day's portion. Zooming in even closer, the words on the parchment told the story of events that happened thousands of years ago below that very sky. Our tableau was like a page of Talmud, every letter and person a commentary surrounding the central text and creating layers of meaning that spiraled out from each other. And in the smallest details of that snapshot--noticeable only within a larger context--lay the most important part of the message.

"God is in the details," said minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe. But "Less is more," he also wrote, and created buildings with simple, ordered spaces that exposed the inherent qualities of materials and structural frameworks. This, for me, expresses the tension and challenge of reading Parashat Tetzaveh. The tabernacle becomes a fitting place for God to abide only when we, as the recipients of instructions surrounding its rituals, can see both inside and beyond them--can hear the music of its message over the din of the market, and synthesize those smaller parts into the larger story of how to build a place, and a way of life, that honors the words of Torah.

As we approach Purim, a holiday when we obscure identities by hiding our own important details, Parashat Tetzaveh reminds me of my mother's lesson: those poppy seeds on the rolls are important, but bringing the bread back home--growing up, and learning how to love and be responsible to individuals, and to the world--is much more so.

In memory of my mother, whose yahrzeit is on Purim, 14 Adar.

5 comments:

Regina Clare Jane said...

That was wonderful, aa... well worth the wait!

alto artist said...

Thank you!
--aa.

Rachel said...

This is glorious. I'd like to excerpt part of it in my discussion handout for this week's Torah portion, even though it's written about Tetzaveh and not Terumah; I think your points still stand, and would be a helpful thing for my congregation to read. Is that okay with you, and is there a name you'd like me to use or should I just put your url?

alto artist said...

Rachel,

Thank you so, so much--I am greatly honored that you'd like to use parts of it! Yes, please feel free. Since I'm sort of trying to stay anonymous here, I'm going to email you, at the address on your website, with some more info.

--aa.

Rachel said...

Thank you, aa! Upon further reflection I'm wondering whether I oughtn't to save it for Tetzaveh, but one way or another, I want to use it in shul, so I look forward to your email! :-)