Shift and Consolidation: Thoughts on the Torah Portions Mishpatim and Terumah

Prior to returning to congregational life, I spent 5  years working for the Union for Reform Judaism. When I would go out and speak to congregations we had a common catch phrase that we would use often. A phrase with my Australian accent, but in fact, with any accent, you would have to say very carefully.

That phrase was: SHIFT HAPPENS. One thing we know about congregations, schools, institutions and events in our own lives, is that SHIFT HAPPENS. Shift is one of the few constants in our lives along with… well… death. And while shift is necessary for invigoration, renewal, innovation, it can also be incredibly disconcerting. SHIFT HAPPENS.

Over the last two weeks in the ever-moving stories of our Torah, the Israelites journey from Mitzrayim, narrow places – through the birth canal of the split Red Sea – into the openness of the Midbar, wilderness. Their lives shift immensely. All at once they crave boundaries, vision and stability. Quite a tall order! In Mishpatim, the boundaries begin as 53 laws are outlined. But these laws only inspire the need or want for even greater shift.

So…  At the end of Mishpatim, comes a WOW moment. A visionary moment.  Bring on the shifting sands of the wilderness! The final 9 verses outline a fabulous, fantastical mystical description.

In chapter 24  Moses, accompanied by Aaron and Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu and 70 of the Elders, journey up a mountain and there Yiru et Elohei Yisrael behold the God of Israel –  seeing under God’s feet pavement of sapphire like sky for purity.

They eat and drink.

The elders, Aaron and his sons, stay behind on the mountain, as Moses is beckoned by God to journey further.

At God’s behest, Moses enters into a cloud for 6 days and then continues up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, residing on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

Amidst all this, the Israelites stay at the mountain foot, perceiving God as a consuming fire atop the peak.

Here is a mystical vision which teaches us so much about how SHIFT HAPPENS.

Change happens in increments:

  • We have the introduction of Mishpatim, ideas, rules, as inspiration.
  • Then the journey of the leadership up the mountain.
  • An aha moment! When they see God.
  • A celebration of that moment.

Not everyone is in the same place  on this continuum of change:

  • Moses is in the cloud.
  • The future priesthood and Joshua outside the cloud.
  • The people are at the base of the mountain.

The process of change is awe inspiring but also very disconcerting.

Our Torah Portion Mishpatim, leaves us with this very cliff hanger. Spirituality. Awe. Intangibility. Uncertainty. Shift. We wonder where will the journey of change lead? Can we keep up this momentum of spiritual growth as a people? What will the next steps be?

And for that we have to wait for our Torah portion Terumah….

Terumah and the Torah narrative bring us back down to earth.

God tells the Israelite people: Asu Li Mikdash V’Shachanti B’tocham Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.  We are told what items to bring to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

God’s presence will no longer be “up there” in a vision, but felt concretely in the Mishkan in the middle of the camp. The vision will be given earthly roots and we will be involved in its creation and implementation as we stabilize the vision amidst us.

And so we learn: In the process of SHIFT HAPPENING, it is important that there is a time of consolidation, a time where every one of us gets involved and invested in the vision, when it becomes actualized and present, part of our every day midst, before we can continue through the desert/Midbar into further shifting sands of life.

SHIFT HAPPENS.

Take a moment for reflection and think about change. Change in your work, or your family, your congregation or your life…   How do these lessons and your experiences of SHIFT past relate to your life experience?

  • What was the impetus?
  • How was the vision articulated and realized?
  • What were the increments in establishing that vision?
  • Where were you in the change continuum? Where were others?
  • How was the vision, grounded and consolidated?
  • When was it time for shift to happen again?
  • How might these lessons be applied in your lives next time… SHIFT HAPPENS?

Predicting the Future

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In a few hours when I arrive in Australia my parents will await me in a coffee shop adjacent to the International Arrivals at Melbourne airport, with a “Skinny Flat White” in their hands to greet me off the plane. There will be big hugs. My Mum will ask if I remembered her Dior perfume from Duty Free. My Dad even though he is not allowed to anymore (for health reasons) will ask to wheel my luggage. Then we will walk into a warm summer day, pay the electronic parking ticket and head down the freeway towards their home.

I will notice a year of changes in them (the aging process seems to accelerate year-by-year) and they will point out little changes in the landscape and the city. I will ask after my brother, sister-in-law and nephew and when I am going to see them? Who is joining us for Shabbat dinner and if we have plans yet for “our birthdays”? They will ask if I am hungry after a long flight with constant servings of food and I will say – “not so much”.

There is something very comforting about knowing what our future holds. Not often do we get to predict with accuracy the way that our lives unfold. Excerpts of Alvin Fine’s words which I sometimes read at funerals “life is a journey… a sacred pilgrimage… made stage by stage…” along with the mantra I would often repeat as advice while working for the Union for Reform Judaism: “shift happens” reverberate more often in our lives rather than predictability.

If I was more of a thrill seeker perhaps I would be better at embracing the unknown future. But as in the real world, my emotional world is not terrific on roller coaster rides. I brace myself on the rise holding tight and close my eyes and gasp at the free fall. I am constantly having to remind myself that at the end of the journey there will be a sense of adventure and a realm of experience that will be part of my growth and well being.

When I look back on times of uncertainty past I have always landed on my feet. Trust in God, the ability to be creative and adapt, to do my best in all circumstances, to keep my options open and fluid, have led to a richer landscape of an unpredictable life. I would not change any of it. And I think to myself: if life predictably unfolded and I always knew what the future held, how boring it would be!

But for now, amidst a time of many changes, just for some short moments, I am hankering for predictability and thankful that soon I will arrive at Melbourne Airport. Mum and Dad: bring that “skinny flat white” on!