06 April 2011

157: Get to Work

There is a unique set of Hebrew terms that appear in this week's Torah portion, that are usually translated as "greenish and reddish," in reference to a kind of growth or mold that appears on a building, rendering it ritually unclean.  I prefer a stronger translation, something along the lines of "greener than green; redder than red," since this comports with what some commentators were going for in seeing the appearance of such phenomenon as religiously other-worldly.  A message, as it were.  In the broader Torah context of concerns for purity and how to alleviate damage caused by the impure elements of Biblical religious consciousness, the Sages understood that there was a deeper spiritual illness at the core of what might cause a physical ailment.

My grandmother, despite losing her husband to a violent death in 1939, raised her two daughters well and I kept a warm, clean house, through many lean and challenging years.  And when I got to know her as a boy, she would often spend her days outside in her yard, tending to her gardens, her bird feeders, and her grass, hustling about with a diligence I forever adored.  The house I grew up in had its share of turmoil, to be sure, given an impending divorce in 1976 but my mom continued the tradition of tending a garden, and assigning duties to us kids like cutting the lawn, wedding around the edges of the driveway, raking leaves in the fall.  At the time these responsibilities were framed as "getting outside" and far away from the television, a kind of demi-god which had begun to conquer the minds of the young and I'm certain is the source of a kind of spiritual illness in the eyes of many, blinding souls with the radically unrealistic constructs of typological characters that don't really exist in life.  Calves that are "golder than gold."  That sort of thing.

Anyway, while walking Nathan mid-day today, I watched briefly our building's gardening crew lay new mulch and shake loose the roots of flowering plants, an early April airing of life's nascent, earthy process, and thought about the idea of a home and its garden as opportunities to build a protection from the kinds of spiritual malaise that can cause homes to be colors unlike colors we've ever encountered before--but not in a good way.  Unnaturally green or red or brown.  Disturbingly so.

This, I would argue, is the force of the Levitical mind as it takes on man's encounter with nature and God, attempting to reconcile personal responsibility and life's mystery.

As Rabbi of a synagogue moving forward with a series of repairs to our sacred structures, such textual constructs are humbling indeed.  One of our lay-leaders, an architect, borrowed my Nechama Leibowitz Torah commentary last Shabbat, so enthralled with the idea that buildings manifest physically what the Torah says are spiritual ailments.  As we repair any space, but certainly our sacred spaces, we do so with the humility of wanting to get it right for ourselves but also with the fear and awe of wanting to get it right for God.

It opens the door for all sorts of questions that are being asked to do about spiritual buildings--sustainable materials, green roofs, solar panels.  We are not only what we eat; we are where we live.

My grandmother often gardened with a small transistor radio by her side.  Listening to Prince Fielder wake up and hit the ball as he did tonight in the Brewers 5-4 victory over the Braves would have pleased her greatly.  On Saturdays in the Fall she would listen to Badger football broadcasts.  On Sundays, it was the Packers.  Between April and October, she had 162 opportunities to listen Brewers broadcasts, a tradition I follow to this day.  It's an iconic sound, a ballgame on the radio and yesterday I caught myself trying to discern the audiological subtleties of hearing a game being called from inside Miller Park (a closed roof) and County Stadium (may its memory be a blessing.)

The difference eluded me.   However I did remember one time in high school, pulling into my grandma's driveway and seeing her in the yard, on one knee, weeding and listening to a game.  We hung out in the yard awhile and then went to sit in the kitchen and talk.  I was getting more serious about Judaism and so we talked alot about faith those days and that was around the time I learned about her relationship to Psalm 121, her favorite.  She recited for me the first line, "I lift up mine eyes to the mountains, what is the source of my strength?  My strength comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth."  Her hazel eyes sparkled as she spoke the words and they seemed to open up a window into a past where I could see, in a moment, one way a person trains their mind and soul to transcend pain and suffering into the illumination of triumph.  Flecks of leaves and soil were on her jeans and her Keds; her cheeks were blushed with excitement; she tapped on her kitchen window with annoyance at a squirrel for daring to invade one of her bird feeders, and she laughed, fulfilled in the moment of having tended her garden and having quoted scripture to her grandson. 

Raising kids through the Depression, a single-working mother and widow, she was victorious.  Her cultivation was her faith; her faith was her cultivation.

As I walk south on Eighth Avenue each day and take a deep breath before walking into the Temple House for work and service to this community, I contemplate this massive physical undertaking of repairing and restoring two old and well-worn structures.  The complicated, coordination of efforts; the various visions for what ought to be; the massive amounts of money to be raised. 

Lift up your eyes, I hear a voice say.  Get to work.

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