Make Me a Sanctuary

The Torah talks about places of sanctuary and building a sanctuary. We need them for our families, communities and for the safety of our hearts.

The Torah gives us all kinds of instructions as well as lists of materials. We are told where each tribe is to place itself around the sanctuary. And where each head of each tribe makes an offering. And we are told which tribe is to bring which particular offering.

We're told when the lamp is to be lit and where to place the Tabernacle furnishings.

After all that detail, we are confronted with a verbal shift. G-d says build me a sanctuary that I may live in you. Not in the sanctuary for which we have received instructions. Not in the sanctuary for which we have made donations. Not in the sanctuary we have just constructed. But inside us!

It's reflective of the Jewish approach to being alive in a physical world and yet having emotional and spiritual hearts and minds and souls.

We work to build houses and manufacture cars and set up towns. And all of that work is to make our hearts feel good and our beings feel safe.

This is acknowledged by the Torah.

As a community, the Torah knows you will need a physical place. In Little Rock we have our Agudath Achim building. We have a board and officers and committees and volunteers and kitchen workers and program people.  All of that is to keep our building working and our synagogue functioning.

When all is said and done, however, those items are in place in order to build a sanctuary in our hearts, to keep us connected with each other, and to help us look after each other's souls.

Build a Sanctuary!
So that all the goodness can live in us. Amen!

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller

On a Zoom and a Prayer

What is prayer? What does it mean to pray?  Is it something I direct somewhere, and is it sent to Someone? Is it something I do to myself?

We’re delving into these questions, and looking into the Shabbat Morning Service - what it means, how it’s structured, and what might be my goal while reciting, or singing, or praying, or davening? (Those may be four very different actions). 

We are meeting at 11:00am Sundays, on Zoom, to study prayer together. The upside is that Laura can (and is) sending the Zoom recording to you by email, allowing you to watch the class that took place, and allowing you to listen to all the discussions and look at the prayers. 

If you choose to join us on Sundays live,  you can be part of the discussions.

Alternatively, we are looking into the Life of Jacob on Thursdays, at 5:00pm. This is also on Zoom, and also full of discussion. 

In this past week during Torah Tidbits, we looked at generational memory, how legacies are passed on, what we tend to forget, what we might want to forget, and things which we cannot forget. That’s pretty timely for so many of us.

Laura is emailing the Torah Tidbits Zoom recording link, too. 

Click on the Zoom recordings Laura emails you, and you can watch the class that has just occurred, at your leisure. 

If you join us at 5:00pm Thursday's, you can be part of the live exchanges.

Wishing you all love, self respect, inner peace and clear values as Shabbat arrives.

Rabbi Mark Biller 

Take a Donation

In this very difficult time in the world, which tends to make us look inwards and worry about ourselves, along comes this week's Torah portion with plans to build the Tabernacle in the desert. (It is the model for the Temple in Jerusalem, and later the model for our present day Synagogues).

G-d, and the Torah, says: "Take a donation".

Shouldn't that say "give a donation"?

For the rabbis, every word in our Torah is carefully chosen, every word rich with meaning. They wanted to figure out why the choice of words is "take" a donation rather than "give" one.

The English word charity tells us we are choosing to mete out part of what we own. The Hebrew word Tzedakah is based on the word Tzedek, meaning 'this is the just way', that sharing is the way things should be.

We are taught by the Hebrew language that sharing is not an act of good-heartedness, it is actually based on how the world is supposed to be.

Our Parsha's language takes this teaching one notch higher, and reminds us that we are wired in such a way that when we give, we're actually receiving; we get warm feelings, we get strength, we get a sense that we are part of a world. We are strengthened in the core of our very humanity.

You think you are "giving" something, when you donate. The Torah says; No, you are "getting" something! You are being warmed as a human being!

And so the Torah's choice of words for donating to your Tabernacle, your Temple, your Synagogue, your community is "take".

TAKE a donation.
You are RECEIVING something when you share.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller

Big Picture. Little Picture.

We are made up of many parts. Some of us are 'big picture' people and some of us are 'detail people'. Whichever category we fit into, the other can present challenges for us. We struggle either with how to assimilate the big picture or how to deal with the small details in a situation.

We were given a simple but impactful exhortation at Rabbinical School. Of course some rabbis are at home swimming in the minutiae of texts, data, law and historical fact, some rabbis are more at home in the great vortex of visionary thinking; but the teaching is applicable to all walks of life.

You may be planning some great program, we were told, and be filled with passion about the impact it will make in your community or in the world. Someone from left field will approach you days before the event and ask: “How many cookies will be needed for that program?” And it will infuriate you 🔥🔥.
You will think: “I'm teaching great ideas and they want to know about cookies?!?”

And here was the warning:
“The cookie counter may be the most important person in your organization! If people come to your 'big idea lecture’, and there aren't enough cookies … you may have no return audience for session number two.”

The people who keep track of how many cookies and forks are needed, and what time the tables need to be set are the people who keep programs running - thereby allowing for the sharing of those precious big ideas.

In the details of the big picture, we are all needed. We form a team and a partnership. It is that way everywhere..

We create sacredness through the use of bits, routines and data. We create sacredness startling concepts and new perspectives as well.

Blessings both large and small to us all this Shabbat,

Rabbi Mark Biller

Fray-ers and Lighters

We are all affected by a swirl of change, by media reporting and by anxieties. It accosts us from so many directions. Through it all, our sacred task is to stay centered and to remember who we are.

Part of the swirl last Shabbat included a hostage taking at a Texas synagogue. At even the whisper of such an event, our Jewish emotional antennae go up, so keyed-in are we to some of our stressful and sad national memories. Our core is connected to our experience as a minority inside a larger dominant group.

We are - shockingly - only two fifths of one percent of the world population, and under two percent of the population here in the United States. Moving through the day when such events are in the news, we work to maintain daily routines, all the while keyed in to what we know is unfolding, and all the while knowing our fellow Jews elsewhere are doing the same.

Several hours before the hostages were released, Rabbi Scott Hausman Weiss wrote the following:

I pray for my colleague Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Waker,
And I pray for his congregants;
I pray for the man so distraught that 'this', he believed,
was his only recourse
for relieving the pain in his heart …. 

… we know that a broken heart can do horrific damage in the throes of seeking to be heard. But we will not allow this to break us… 

We are not whom our enemies believe us to be; we do not dwell in the darkness they project upon us 

We are the Lighters of Light….
We are created B'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d.

In this broken world - and the brokenness is so often thrust upon and at us -
we are pained for the damage done to us, we are pained by the damage inside those who inflict damage.

And yet we know, and must hold on to knowing, that no matter how frayed the world, we are the values and aspirations we bring to the table, we are the Lighters of Light.

We are Lighters of Light.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller

Ritual. Rote. Renewal.

Jacob dreams of a ladder touching the ground which reaches the heavenly spheres. Angels go up and down, and it's a deep spiritual moment for him.

He wakes, pours oil on a pile of stones, and anoints the place.

I'm not sure that would have been my first reaction to a heavenly visitation, but that's what he does.

We Israelites are freed from Egyptian oppression. We leave in a flurry of plagues, miracles and walls of splitting water. And what do we do?

We sit at the table each year, eat a paste of nuts, apples and wine, squeeze horseradish between two matzah slices, and recite from a book that's shared at tables all over the world.

For Jacob, he’s had an experience he can never replicate. From the depths of his soul he wants to remember and mark that place. Perhaps he plans a return, or wants to someday bring his unborn children, to witness the place at which his inner transformation started.

We Israelites experienced a phenomenal reversal. Living as slaves, we were freed. Our overlords drown. The great Pharaoh is reduced to a defeated onlooker. During the ensuing escape, we accept a constitution which brings us and the world a new way of life. It's a starling whirlwind.

In both cases, awesome occurrences must be turned into a manageable, transmittable ritual and memory which we can both handle and pass on.

We repeat these rituals to remind us of those transcendent moments. By repeating them we add to their power. Yet the repetition and sameness robs our rituals of the very transcendence we are attempting to remember and re-experience!

How do we repeat the same Friday night prayers every week and feel the reverence we want? How do we return to G-d with the same Amidah prayer every Shabbat morning and make it 'new' for us and for G-d?

How can our words, our events, and our special foods - all regulated by the calendar - feel spontaneous and heartfelt each time we try to remember? It's an impossible combination but we are driven to  keep reaching for it.

This was our group discussion topic during our Sunday morning class - and it was all brought on by a text we were studying about how to light a Menorah.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller

There's somebody bigger than us.

Mel Brooks has a character he calls “the 2000 Year Old Man”. They find a man in a cave who’s 2,000 years old, who gives us his perspectives on history. (He incidentally has a Yiddish accent).

Asked how fire was discovered, the Mel Brooks character talks about a guy named Phil. Phil was a big, big guy – they were all afraid of Phil and everybody did what Phil said.

As Brooks tells it, one day they were all roasting marshmallows around the fire, a bolt of lightning came down from the sky, and instantly electrocuted Phil.

They knew then there was somebody bigger than Phil.

The Torah during these weeks is telling much the same story. Pharaoh’s refrain of “Who is this G-d that I should listen to him”  is met by plague after plague. A fairy tale? A true occurrence? Many see these stories in many different ways.

However you frame the stories, the message is the same. There’s somebody bigger than us. In the Torah’s case that is the invitation not to fear, but to higher values and to leading a purposeful life.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller