Saturday, March 7, 2009

Better Late than never - Seminary Shabbat 5769 - Parshat Terumah

Although I meant to post this d'var Torah a few months ago, I don't think it's too late to share these words. In February, I had the honor to travel to Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens for a Seminary Shabbat. On that week, students like me from all of the five schools at JTS traveled to Conservative synagofues across North America to teach, participate in services, and meet community members. The following is a d'var torah which I shared from the bimah at Hillcrest that Shabbat morning:

D’var Torah – Seminary Shabbat, Hillcrest Jewish Center

Shabbat Shalom! My name is Gabriel Seed, and I am a second year student in, the joint program between, List College, the undergraduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. As someone who grew up in the institutions of the Conservative movement, including Ramah and USY, it is an honor to be at a shul which is so strongly connected to the movement.

Before I share some words of Torah on this week’s Parshah of Terumah, I’d like to say a few words about myself and the background that brought me to choose JTS and Columbia. I grew up in a traditional Conservative household, and lived in a number of different communities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Toronto, attending Jewish day schools throughout. During my high school years, I was very active in USY, participating in the USY on Wheels bus trip across the United States and Eastern Europe/Israel pilgrimage, as well as serving as the Religion/Education vice president for the Eastern Canadian region.

After graduating, I had one of the most amazing years of my life as a participant in Nativ, the Conservative movement’s pre-College year in Israel, where I spent a semester studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and the second semester working in the fields of Kibbutz En Zurim.

After so many important Jewish experiences during my childhood and adolescence, I was seeking a college where I could engage in critical Jewish learning without sacrificing a strong and serious secular education. Since arriving at JTS and Columbia, I have been able to expand my Jewish and secular learning, while at the same time finding a dynamic and supportive community outside the classroom.

This week’s Parasha, Terumah, comes immediately after the revelation at Sinai in Parashat Yitro and the giving of additional laws in last week in Mishpatim. It contains the architectural plans for the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would accompany the Children of Israel on their journey through the desert.

Preceding the detailed instructions for the building of the 7-branched menorah, the shulchan to hold the showbread, and the other structures of Mishkan, we are given God’s explanation why we are constructing these objects and enclosures. The core verse of this section is striking in both its simplicity and profound meaning:

ועשו לי מקדש, ושכנתי בתוכם

And you shall build me a tabernacle, so that I may dwell within it.

The idea of God dwelling among the people through their worship and gathering in God’s honor is one that did not end after the period of the Mishkan, or even after the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It continued throughout rabbinic literature and in Jewish thought until today. While a personal connection to God is important and even essential, a relationship to God is incomplete unless lived in a community of prayer, learning and caring.

This semester, I have had the pleasure of taking a Talmud course with Dr. David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS, and wonderful professor and person. We are studying the tractate Bava Kamma using a method called Bekiut, in which we cover a large number of pages of text during the semester. The topic of this particular chapter is property law, and the main discussion so far has been the obligations of those who share courtyards or property boundaries, in how to be good and fair neighbors.

In spite of this detailed legal topic, it is fascinating to read the Midrashim interspersed with this very mundane legal material. Many of these deal directly with the Mishkan, the Temple, as well as the synagogues and houses of study which have served as such essential focal points for the Jewish community, from the times of the rabbis until the present. At one point, the discussion jumps from describing the materials used in a wall dividing the courtyard, to a fascinating discussion of renovating and rebuilding synagogues, and the different issues involved therein. The rabbis bring up issues that are deeply relevant to us today as involved members of the Jewish community- concerns over fundraising and ensuring that there is always a place for the community to pray in. Shortly thereafter, we find a discussion on the obligation of partners to share in building a doorway for a courtyard and residents to subsidize a wall for a city. This topics leads into to the beautiful interpretation of a verse from song of songs. “I am a wall and my breasts are as towers” Rava interpreted : ‘a wall’ – this is the house of Israel, and ‘towers’ – these are the synagogues and study houses of the Jewish people.

Not only does Rava’s interpretation shows the centrality of the synagogue and Jewish learning in Jewish life, both in 4th century Babylonia and 21st century America. It also illustrates the mission of the five schools of JTS, and especially my study in the joint undergraduate program with Columbia University, in which I will earn a Bachelors in Talmud from the Seminary and a Bachelors in history from Columbia. Just as some of the most meaningful rabbinic sayings about Jewish living and ritual come in the midst of a mundane discussion of fences and doorposts, I am also extremely fortunate to combine the highest quality Jewish and secular educations with unparalleled opportunities to become involved in the larger community.

Over the past two years, I have had the privilege to take courses at JTS which span the gamut of the Jewish literary, legal, historical and religious experience. From studying Jewish law with Rabbi Joel Roth, a former dean of the JTS rabbinical school and past chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Classical liturgical poetry with the renowned Ray Scheindlin as well as American history with Columbia’s provost, Alan Brinkley, my educational experience so far has been just as eclectic as is the discussion of the Talmudic rabbis.

Reinforcing the concern of our tradition for the community, I have also been privileged to have a variety of unique experiences outside the classroom. In addition to my involvement at JTS, such as working in the library, IT department, and as a mashgiach, a supervisor of Kashrut, in the Seminary cafeteria, one of my most rewarding experiences so far has been my involvement in Columbia/Barnard Hillel. I have been involved in a number of areas within Hillel, including Koach, the Conservative community on campus. This semester, I began serving as religious life coordinator on the Hillel executive board. In this position, I have had the opportunity to work with religious groups across the Jewish spectrum, help plan for the future of Hillel, and even represent the organization within the larger Columbia community, such as at a joint bible study held last week with one of the campus Christian groups.

I believe that this rabbinic world view embodied in the structure of Bava Batra is a wonderful paradigm for how we can live our lives today, engaging in the larger community and all it has to offer, while keeping institutions like JTS and our synagogues at the core of our beings. In these troubling times, Jewish learning and living can provide us with a way to give meaning and purpose to our lives through these timeless ideas that can speak to our moments of both joy and tragedy.