One Minute Torah: Tetzaveh 5779

Our parshah this week, Tetzaveh, describes plans for the Tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary that the Israelites would carry with them through the desert.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Amy Eliberg and the staff of Faith in Action, a group of about 20 local rabbis have been meeting monthly to study issues of social justice. Yesterday, two brave women, both immigrants from Mexico, shared their personal stories with our group. They spoke frankly, and in confidence.

Their stories were hard to hear. They represent a group that came to our country to escape poverty or violence. When they first arrived in the Bay Area, jobs were plentiful. They lived simply, and made enough to send money home. But with crackdowns on immigration, they were fired from good jobs, where they had worked for many years. Now, while many jobs are unfilled and employers scramble to find workers, these women scramble to find work.  Their undocumented status is a sword above their heads. Landlords and employers have abused them, then threatened to call immigration authorities should they attempt to defend themselves.

Despite their own vulnerability, these women volunteer every week to help other immigrants facing deportation. “I believe in justice,” one of them said. And both of them ended their talks by saying, through tears, that they are not alone. They have faith that God is with them.

Hearing their stories, I had the sense of immense forces pounding them down. Belief in an invisible God seemed such a flimsy lifeline to cling to. And yet, it was clear that their faith was holding them up.

Our parshah this week, Tetzaveh, describes plans for the Tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary that the Israelites would carry with them through the desert. Many modern readers find all this detail about ritual worship jarring, especially in the midst of the glory of the Exodus. But to ancient and medieval commentators, this ritual focus made perfect sense. The verse says:

וְיָדְע֗וּ כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֧אתִי אֹתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְשָׁכְנִ֣י בְתוֹכָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃

“They will know I am Ado-nai their God, who took them out of the land of Egypt so that I might dwell amongst them. I am Ado-nai their God. (Exodus 29:46)”

The Midrash (ancient rabbinic commentary) remarks on this verse:

לֹא יָצְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם אֶלָּא בִּזְכוּת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.

“The Israelites left Egypt for the sake of the Tabernacle.”

Though the Israelites bent under the burden of foreign bricks and whips and cruel gods, their backs did not break. They were cushioned by a faith that some day, they would labor to build their own sanctuary, for their own true God.

After hearing from our speakers, we rabbis paired off for chevrutah (partner) study. In the course of conversation, I shared with my partner a comment I heard some time ago from a director at the Ecumenical Hunger Program. The director, herself African-American, said that elderly Caucasian women who find themselves homeless often seem the most lost and pitiable of all the individuals she works with. My study partner remarked, “Given where we live, I suspect that Caucasian women are less likely to have a faith tradition to fall onto.”

I left the session feeling charged on two counts. Religion is countercultural in Silicon Valley. Talking earnestly about God is unusual. But I believe we must do so. Reaching for a power greater than ourselves keeps us humble when we are strong, and lifts us up when our strength fails.

And I feel charged to reach out to support our immigrant neighbors. Faith in God can only take one so far. We must be God’s hands in this world, so that the lifeline becomes solid and can pull through. If you would like to join me in this effort, send me an email, and I will let you know when opportunities arise.