kvell – intr. v. To gush with pride
This past weekend, our daughter Molly celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, lit. daughter of commandment. In the synagogue, Nina and I recited an ancient blessing to thank God for releasing us from some responsibilities and for conferring new ones on Molly.
She led prayers, chanted Torah, and shared what she had learned from studying her Torah portion Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1–38:20).
It nearly didn’t happen. Molly caught a wicked cold on Friday. When she woke up on Saturday, she could barely speak. Her throat was sore and inflamed. Her nose ran. She coughed.
And yet, postponement was not an option.
She’d studied the content of her Torah portion with me for a year. She’d studied the chanting with her tutor for six months. Our relatives had flown in. The reception was laid out, the decorations in place, the food bought and prepared.
Molly soldiered on.
When she stepped up to lead the Torah service, her voice was a barely audible croak.
Our hearts sank. We knew how hard she had worked, how well prepared she was for this moment. It would crush her if she couldn’t perform her coming-of-age ritual.
And then something wonderful happened.
As Molly led us in prayer, her voice grew stronger. Call it the Spirit of God (more on that below), adrenaline, or sheer desire, Molly tapped into it and elevated all of us.
She chanted her ancient verses from the Torah, and her slightly less ancient haftorah verses from Kings 1. And then she delivered her teaching to an expectant congregation of 300.
I am still kvelling.
Here is Molly’s teaching…
A few years ago, my friend and I were sitting in this very room during services. We were both a little restless. We started playing with bobby pins to get our hands busy. Then we noticed the armrests on the sides of the chairs, and we remembered that the Sanctuary would be remodeled soon.
As you can see, this hasn’t happened yet.
We decided to leave our mark. We took our bobby pins and scratched our names into the armrests.
Our parents realized what we had done. They were pretty mad at us, and they ordered us to tell Rabbi Lucas.
I felt like crawling into a hole. I knew that we were wrong and I was deeply embarrassed. We showed Rabbi Lucas what we had done. I expected him to get mad and lecture us – maybe even punish us – but instead he looked at the chairs, and thought about it for a moment.
He made a connection. Rabbi Lucas said the way to teach us to not disrespect sanctuary chairs was not to lecture us. It was to talk to the women who spent three years making those beautiful embroidered chairs that sit on the Bimah [stage/podium].
My friend and I visited these talented ladies whose names were Dvorah Colker and Barbara Rabin.
When we visited their homes to talk to them, they showed us dozens of needlework pillows and wall hangings that they had made. These women are really spectacular.
The thing we were given to do was so special, and fun. Not any kind of punishment at all. In fact, it turned out to be a holy task. After we met, I wrote an article about them for the synagogue magazine. Sharing this holy history with the community was a beautiful assignment that needed to be done. It helped me, it helped the ladies, and it helped our community.
Rabbi Lucas had the wisdom to connect our restless energy with that holy work.
This week’s Torah portion can help us learn how to direct our energy in the right direction, especially after we’ve messed up and gone in the wrong one.
First, let’s recall last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai, and the Israelites were at the bottom waiting. They missed Moses, because he had been up there for 40 days talking with God.
Moses was their leader. Without him, they did not know what to do. A group with a leader is a team, while a group without a leader is a mob. They were waiting for him to return and panicked when it seemed he would not.
They decided to build an עגל זהב – a golden calf – to replace Moses as their connection to God. The men contributed gold and jewelry. The women did not. They knew better.
We usually do.
So Aaron took the materials from the men and made an idol.
Meanwhile, back on Mount Sinai, God told Moses that the people were worshipping an idol. Moses couldn’t believe it. Here he was, spending 40 days with God in order to receive the great gift of Torah for his people, and they were committing a sin guaranteed to make them unworthy of the gift.
With a heavy heart, Moses went down the mountain carrying the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. When he saw the golden calf with his own eyes, he smashed the tablets, and ordered the ringleaders killed, as well as all the other men who were dancing around the idol.
The Israelites had misdirected their energy, and they paid a heavy price.
Now we come to this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel. God allows the people to make up for their sin, and gives them a beautiful way to do it.
God tells Moses to instruct the children of Israel to build the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, a holy house for God on Earth. God through Moses gives them specific directions and details for the construction.
God helped them redirect the same energy they used to build the Golden Calf into building the Mishkan – the perfect way to get them back on the right path, and keep them out of trouble.
But what if you mess up, and you don’t have Moses or Rabbi Lucas telling you where to redirect your energy?
My Torah portion is all about the answer to this question. The first thing to realize about the Mishkan project is that Moses was actually not in charge. God appointed a special project leader for building the Mishkan.
His name was Betzalel. In Exodus 35:31, we read about Betzalel:
וימלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה בתבונה ובדעת ובכל-מלאכה
“And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and with every kind of craftsmanship.”
You would think that the most important quality about the guy in charge of the Mishkan project is that he’s skilled at every kind of craft. But actually that’s his least important quality.
There are four other qualities that are more important. To help me understand them, I was fortunate to have a Skype meeting with Rabbi David Aaron, who lives in Jerusalem.
The first quality, the Spirit of God, I’ll come back to.
The second one, chochmah, is loosely translated as wisdom in English. Rabbi Aaron explained that a person with chochmah is someone who has vision. In the Talmud, our Sages teach that someone with chochmah is one who sees the birth of things. Rabbi Aaron said this means looking around and figuring out what kind of impact we want to have on the world.
For example, in the armrest story, Rabbi Lucas’ chochmah was finding a task for two young girls with lots of energy that would create something holy.
The next quality is binah, usually translated as understanding. In this context it means taking the vision and turning it into a plan. Rabbi Lucas’s binah was to send us to talk with the ladies.
Then comes da’at. This is really figuring out what you need to make that plan happen. For example, my da’at was to set a date, place and time to meet with them with my camera.
These three qualities – chochmah, binah, and da’at – combine to give us direction for our energies and talents. These qualities are key when making a game plan. But what about Ruach Elokim, the Spirit of God? Why is that the first quality on the list?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says “The Holy One gives wisdom only to one who has wisdom.”
A person who’s already wise doesn’t need wisdom. I need wisdom so I can become wise! What is Rabbi Yochanan telling us?
I believe the answer lies with the wisest person who ever lived. King Solomon. How did he become so wise? How did it happen?
That’s how simple it was. When Solomon became king, he asked God to grant him wisdom and God answered his prayer. That’s what Ruach Elokim means. Instead of just asking yourself, “Where should I direct my energy?” and hoping that a chochmah will come, you ask God for help.
I think that’s what Rabbi Lucas did when he paused before speaking after our parents told him what we had done. He asked for help, and a great idea came.
Thanks to this week’s Torah portion, I’ve learned to ask God for help when I need inspiration, and then turn the idea that comes into a game plan.
I’d like to thank everyone who made a game plan out of sharing this day with me…
I had the privilege of working with some very inspiring leaders in preparing for this day. Thank you Rabbi Kligfeld and Rabbi Lucas for helping me with my drash [teaching]. Thank you Cantor Chorny for going over everything with me. To Hillel Tigay for tutoring me on the services, the haftorah, and all the Torah I read. And last, but not least, to my parents. They helped me so much with my drash. They really helped me fully understand the concepts and my Torah portion. I could not have done it without these people.
Image by Jonah Light Photography from the dress rehearsal on Thursday. Embroidered chairs by Dvorah Colker and Barbara Rabin visible behind Molly, Avi, Nina and Sal Litvak.