Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Ritual Significance: Actions Speak Louder Than Words (Ki Tisa – 3/18/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanThis week’s parsha instructs us to craft a unique anointing oil: (Exodus 30: 22-30)
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take for yourself spices of the finest sort: of pure myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, fragrant cane, cassia and olive oil.’”

This oil would then be used to anoint the Tabernacle (the portable Temple in the desert) and all its components. “And you shall anoint with it the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of Testimony, the Menorah…”

But what’s the point of anointing the Ark, the Cherubs and the Menorah?  Aren’t they inherently Holy and dedicated for Divine service? What else is one going to do with such fancy arks and lamps?

This week, I met with one my rabbinic mentors, Rabbi Ken Emert, and we discussed a number of topics facing the Jewish people.

One of the issues we discussed was conversion. Both of us see Tevillah B’Mikvah, immersion in a mikvah, as an essential final step in the conversion process. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis require it, but some Reform rabbis do not mandate immersion, requiring only a declaration of acceptance of the Mitzvoth by the convert.

Intellectually, these Reform rabbis are correct. Mindset is everything. Halachically, Elvis Presley and the previous Cardinal of Paris were Jewish, but realistically, they were not. Just because someone is born to a Jewish mother doesn’t automatically make them disavow the trinity or eat matzah on Passover. It’s the identification with Judaism that creates Jewishness. Therefore, admission and recognition of one’s Jewishness should be enough. Why do we need the act of immersion as well?

Along these lines, Rabbi Ken and I discussed patrilineal descent. From the Bible, it seems as though Jewishness is created through patrilineal descent. For example, nearly all of Solomon’s wives were of foreign origin, including the mother of Rehavam, his heir to the throne from the nation of Ammon. King Ahab of the northern tribes of Israel married the infamous foreign princess Jezebel. Nowhere in text does it mention that any of these women converted. Jezebel was an idolater until her dying die, obviously making her conversion, if there was one, dubious, and nonetheless her children were Jewish.

Despite what we infer from the Bible, the rabbis switched Judaism to be based on matrilineal descent. Anyone not born of a Jewish mother would require conversion (including immersion) to be considered Jewish.

What does this have to do with anointing the vessels of the Tabernacle? The Ark, the Cherubs and the Menorah are certainly going to be used for Divine service, but when is the moment that they become “holy”? When is the point of no return for these items, that they can’t be melted down and repurposed? It’s their anointment.

A deed of active involvement makes a dividing line. A person could be studying to become Jewish for years, she’s attended services and seders, learned Hebrew and koshered her kitchen. But what’s the demarcation line for her, when did the conversion definitively take place?  When she wholly immersed herself in a mikvah. At that moment, a new person was add to the populace of the Jewish people.

Our parsha is teaching us the importance of action in practice. Of course, the Ark is created for Divine service, but even an Ark needs an act of dedication.  Mindset is invaluable, but we live in a world of action, hence, the idiom, “actions speak louder than words.”

The rabbis embraced this principle in many places and crafted what we call Judaism today. Certain parts of Judaism may be outdated and need to be “reformed, reconstructed and renewed”, but without a doubt there are many brilliant teachings and principles as well. The act of dedication, providing a clear demarcation line for many parts of our life, was just one of their great institutions.

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