These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Sustainability

Posted on August 20, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

Thank God I made it through my first full week in Chicago! Busy with staff training, learning the neighbourhood and tying up loose ends, I’m happy to report that things are starting to fall into place. I’m grateful for all the support in and outside Chicago – you know who you are! This week, I read through the parsha during my 45-minute commute to work. I hope you’ll allow me to be succinct this week.
This week’s parsha, Parshat Eikev, includes texts which have shaped much of Jewish liturgy and Jewish theology. For example, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer appears in this week’s parsha. What stood out to me this week was a small detail in the verses below. A word of background: Moses is speaking to the people and recounting some of the key events of the Israelites in the desert. Among them, Moses describes how God instructed him after he had broken the first set of stone tablets received on Mount Sinai, in response to the Golden Calf, saying:
א בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר ה’ אֵלַי, פְּסָל-לְךָ שְׁנֵי-לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים, וַעֲלֵה אֵלַי, הָהָרָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ, אֲרוֹן עֵץ.1 At that time the LORD said unto me: ‘Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me into the mount; and make for yourself an ark of wood. (Deuteronomy 10:1)
Why does God command Moses to prepare stone for the tablets – which will receive the words of God – and wood for the ark? Maybe both should be from wood? Or stone? Or reversed? Why choose these specific materials for these religious objects?
Preparing for my classes this week, I am consistently confronted with the question of how to maintain the integrity of Jewish texts and practices with the changing realities of my students. How do I present a text without ignoring its context? How do I present the religious-historical context of the Talmud or the Bible without subverting the voices within the text? How can I engage my students without disengaging from the text?
I think that the verse quoted above offers a helpful model: On the one hand, the content of our Jewish learning must be substantive and time-honoured, like “the tablets of stone”. As such, we must first read and unpack the text in its own context– a particular book of the Bible or section in the Talmud. Nevertheless, we are equally responsible to provide a casing for the text which is accessible and living, like “the ark of wood”.
In many ways, I think this model also supports any and every kind of engaged Jewish living and Jewish learning. Our foundations must be durable and sturdy as stone. This may mean consistent Jewish text study (at whatever level is appropriate for each of us) and informed guiding principles and values. The casing which safeguards these texts and values, however, must reflect what is alive for us– like wood.
I hope that we are able to stay grounded in Jewish foundations (“tablets of stone”) and live them out in animated and sustainable forms (“ark of wood”).
Shabbat Shalom,
Tamara