Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayak’heil-P’kudei

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” Aretha, the Queen Mother of Soul, taught us how to spell the most important word in interpersonal relationships. When one understands the true meaning of the word “Respect,” one has the power to change the world. So, let’s look at the word. According to Merriam-Webster, “Respect” has several definitions, and each would lend to this song, a very different message. The song’s key phrases are, “I’m about to give you all of my money, and all I’m askin’ in return, honey, is to give me my profits, when you get home … Ooh, your kisses, Sweeter than honey, and guess what, so is my money.”


One definition of “respect” reads, “An act of giving particular attention.”  “Respect my money, I deserve to be treated well.” Were it that this was her intention, the song would teach us that we are supposed to treat rich people well because they have money. I hardly think that this is what she intended.


More in keeping with what we traditionally think of in using the word respect, the dictionary offers, “To hold something or someone in high regard or esteem.” Whatever the rest of the song, “everyone” knows that this is a breakout song for a woman to tell a man, “I can take care of myself! Respect me for that!” Women have stood behind this classic, and one cannot think of Aretha and not think of this song … or think of it and not hear her soulful voice beating it out.


There is only one problem with this phenomenon; the song was written and sung first by Otis Redding. He wrote the song to talk about a man who worked hard all day to provide for his family, only to be treated horribly by the wife he supported and to whom he catered. In his case, “respect” was a plea for dignity and recognition. “High regard and esteem” were not even close possible realities, given the text of the song.


Not only is the word “respect” ambiguous, but the purpose and impact of the song focused on that word is, as well. Hearing the song from the troubled soul of Otis Redding’s disrespected husband’s voice makes it a completely different song than hearing it from the triumphant and “in your face” boldness of a liberated Aretha Franklin.


In much the same way, Torah is ambiguous. We read texts in and out of their original context, and in doing so, we each walk away with our own unique truths. Three religions stem from one single text, each taking its teachings in very different directions, each claiming it to be the “true” context. Bahya Be Asher wrote, “The scroll of the Torah is written without vowels, so you can read it variously. Without vowels, the consonants bear many meanings and splinter into sparks. That is why the Torah scroll must not be vowelized. … Without vowels, you can understand it in countless, wondrous ways.” Perhaps then, the purpose of Scripture was to yield many profound understandings. The very same words read through the mouths of a Jesuit Priest, a Baptist Minister, and Imam or a Rabbi, will have little if any bearing on the intended messages of the other voices reading them. Each version roots in the text’s truth.


With all this in mind, I read this week’s Torah portion. We finish Exodus this week, and with it, finish building the Mishkan. The Alcalay Dictionary is considered to be one of the premier Hebrew – English Dictionaries. The word “Mishkan” ranges in translation from dwelling, to sanctuary, to grave. This Torah portion speaks of the Mishkan as the place where God will dwell amongst the people. Other pieces of text refer not to the “Mishkan,” but to the “Mishkanot” of the people. If Mishkan means sanctuary or temple/tabernacle, then “Mishkanot Yisrael” would be the “TEMPLES/TABERNACLES” of Israel (plural), not just the homes of the people. In the Book of Numbers, Bilaam will go to curse Israel, but, looking out over the people, will bless their Mishkanot. What did he see that day? People’s homes or the multitude of faith traditions encamped together?


In a debate with a colleague this week, the relative definition of Israel volleyed back and forth. He argued for the position that Judaism and Israel were identical and inseparable. My position was that the term Israel means God wrestling / faith, and that Judaism is a subset of that people of faith. One word: “Israel.” From the mouths of two passionate Rabbis: two very different meanings.


The people of Israel in the Bible dispersed to the winds with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. Judaea is the remnant identifiable people of Israel, but not knowing to where the northern folks dispersed, keeps us from ever arguing that only we exist. This phenomenon was a known quantity at the time the Bible became Jewish canon. Those in charge included Ezekiel’s prophecy that one day (Messianic Age) the sticks he held in one hand representing Judah would reunite with the sticks in the other hand that represented the rest of Israel who found their way back home. For this Rabbi, devout in his Jewish faith, there is a clear message of hope tied into these texts and which is driven home by this week’s text. The Mishkanot Yisrael are each sanctuaries of holiness, and each flows from the paradigm of the one that brought all folks together, the building of which culminates in this week’s reading. Each of our homes … every home in the world … with folks from all different traditions of wrestling with God in faith … is a sanctuary of holiness. I pray for the day when we return from our exile from each other, and we can get past the politics of names and the dogma that separates us from respecting each other. I pray that we return to that moment when whoever looks at this world can praise the beauty of each of our mishkanot.