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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayakhel                          February 26, 2022 - 25 Adar 1, 5782

02/25/2022 11:12:24 AM

Feb25

In parshat Vayakhel, the actual construction of the Tabernacle is described. It begins with an overview of the materials involved, a brief tangent into the observance of Shabbat, but then we begin with the construction of the tapestries, wall panels, sockets, curtains. This is followed by the construction of the menorah, and the incense altar, the outer altar and the washing station, the mesh curtains which surrounded the Tabernacle courtyard, and the various beams and hooks that anchored them into the ground. All in all, it’s a rather dry parsha. Typically, parshat Vayakhel is paired most years with a second parsha, Pekudei, read on the same Shabbat, and is only split into two separate weeks on leap years, such as we have this year, so as to make enough parshiot to fill out the entire year. The double-parsha is something of a blessing for rabbis (and cantors as the case may be) for the process of developing sermons, because it can be a bit challenging to find topics and themes in the text that congregations will find both interesting and relevant to modern times. And when we do have a leap year, and we only have parshat Vayakhel to work with, you can almost be guaranteed that the topic for a sermon will be about the part that discusses how the Israelites were so willing to donate their riches to the building project that Moses actually had to tell them to stop. This is followed by the tongue-in-cheek bemoaning of how hard it is to raise funds for essential shul maintenance and programming today. But the fact remains that sometimes, albeit very rarely, we can go searching for something deep and meaningful in the Torah, something relevant and pertinent to what is going on in our lives today, and actually come up somewhat empty handed.

So what do we do when the Torah is silent? What happens when sometimes we desperately need an answer to a burning question, guidance in a time of need and our tradition has nothing to say? What happens when our situation seems to fall into a dark crack between Jewish law, when the blade has found a soft spot between the plates of our armor? I wish that I knew. All I can think to do is shine as much light as possible in the darkness, and see if the answers reveal themselves. So, Let There Be Light.

I was always terrified to become a dad. Having taught classrooms of almost every age group, I’m confident around children, but I am essentially ignorant when it comes to babies. I have no idea what to do with them, and I find they usually don’t know what to do with me. But Jamie is a baby whisperer, a diaper juggler, and a degreed expert in early childhood education. The fear stemming from my lack of confidence melted away (admittedly not entirely) the day she became my wife. But for two whole years we tried, sought medical help as our hopes and dreams cycled through worries and fears until God’s miraculous universe finally coalesced for us. It was a Friday evening after zoom davening when the stick said something it had never said before. We thought it had to be a mistake and tried several more test kits, they all said the same thing and still we had a hard time believing it. Most couples tend to have at least a few moments to themselves to absorb the news, but at the very same time, my parents appeared on our doorstep dropping off a freshly baked challah for us. The news was plastered onto our faces, and they could see it immediately. There was joy, there was panic, and plenty of crying.

The joy stayed with us, even as the morning sickness began complicating life, but began to fade when morning then became all day and all night. Further complications had us in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. We were fortunate though, to have a family of doctors which included specialists in obstetrics to guide us, answer our questions, and help keep our anxieties in check. “The first trimester is the worst”, they told us. It kept us hopeful that pretty soon we could breathe a small sigh of relief and actually enjoy our miracle, if only we could hang on a bit longer. And although we were already several weeks into the second trimester, eventually the worst symptoms subsided, or at least we’re not as omnipresent as they had been, and we did get to enjoy our miracle for a short time. But that was, of course, until a fateful Wednesday morning when during a routine checkup, Jamie asked specifically to see an ultrasound again because she “just had a feeling”. Due to COVID protocols, I was on speakerphone in the room while I sat in the car in an alley behind Mount Sinai hospital. Typically when there is something wrong, the ultrasound technician won’t give the news, but will bring in the doctor. But even through the surgical mask, Jamie could see it on the technician’s face and called her out. “You can’t find the heartbeat”.

We were at 18 weeks. The technician paused, knowing that the secret was already out and confirmed that she was having trouble finding it. Some technicians at smaller clinics can have difficulties with their equipment, others are just less experienced, but an ultrasound technician at Mount Sinai hospital does not make these kinds of mistakes. The doctor was called, the hallway outside the room was asked to be cleared, and we already knew.

Induction was scheduled for Friday morning, two days later, and we arrived at Mount Sinai with a suitcase, extra blankets and pillows, and a Shabbat food package from Bikur Cholim that came complete with electric candles sticks. They didn’t actually work in the end, but the sentiment was nice.

Not all miscarriages are the same. We could have scheduled the procedure for a week and a half later, and it would have been classified as stillbirth. The labour lasted 14 hours, but the pain medication stopped being effective after the first 6 or so. An epidural was ordered and we were transferred to the delivery room. I could hear babies crying in the rooms we passed by as we rolled down the hallway on the gurney. Thankfully, Jamie was far too distracted to hear them. The needle was seconds away, but too late. And minutes later it was over. He arrived and left us in the same moment. Noah Menachem ben Yirmiyahu Lev v’Chaya Bracha z’l.

Jewish tradition has very little to say about situations like this, much like the people around us who understandably struggle to find the right words, themselves. I certainly don’t know. Jamie held him and said goodbye, but I couldn’t. She told me he had her almond shaped eyes, my thin lipped wide mouth, and a clubbed foot just like Jamie had also been born with, but on the other side. But yet our tradition teaches that Noah wasn’t a baby. Though we feel pain and anguish, we are not in mourning. Though we had a casket that I held in my arms, sang to and covered with earth, there was no funeral. Though we sit at home, remembering, sharing stories, receiving the most beautiful messages of comfort and consolation from our friends, family and community, there is no shiva.

We know that our feelings are acknowledged and supported by all those around us, and for that we are so blessed. But the gaping hole in our religious teachings is an emotional pit that is hard not to fall into, and begs questions that I’m not certain that I want to know the answers to. Did Noah have a neshama, a soul? Where is it now? Am I a dad, or am I not? And of course we can have our own opinions, our own imaginings and theories as we plumb the depths of Jewish knowledge, searching for a source that we can use for some small bit of guidance. But, sometimes a parsha just doesn’t quite have what we need. Sometimes, on a leap year, while a new war rages, an ongoing pandemic keeps us apart, rising antisemitism heightens our fears, sometimes the parsha is Vayakhel. And as is the case, all we can do is resort to the only sermon Vayakhel offers us. But unlike Moses, we will not ask for your contributions to stop. Your thoughts and messages are what continues to sustain us through this difficult time in our lives, and we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,
          —ChazJ

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782