Shabbat Parah 5783
Remember the movie The Matrix? The film was action-packed, using cutting edge special effects. Some loved it just because the movie visually bent time and space. Others found profound philosophical meaning in its story. Two other Matrix films would be released, pushing its philosophical bend deeper. And then, in 2021, producers released a fourth movie, Matrix Resurrections. The action movie went theological.
In the original 1999 Matrix, we meet Thomas A. Anderson, a computer programmer caught in white bread, middle-class America. He goes about his boring day. Yet we learn that by night, he has a different identity. He is also known as Neo, a hacker of incredible ability. A beautiful stranger, called Trinity, contacts him. She seems to think he is someone different, someone more significant. Thomas A. Anderson is confused when Trinity and her team thrust him into a different world. This new reality is a more real world, one in which they are the good guys fighting against evil machines, fighting for humanity to wake up and not be overtaken by the darkness that is so present around them. Thomas A. Anderson, now Neo, embraces his new friends and role. As he wakes up to who he really is, those around him debate if he is the One. He trains to fight the evil machines. He knows kung fu. He can bend spoons. He can dodge bullets, and eventually even control their trajectory in mid-air. As the battles against the evil computers intensify, it becomes apparent that Neo is meant for this role, and that his gifts are needed at that moment.
The Matrix taps into a motif that goes back generations. It is an essential form of storytelling: the reluctant hero, uncertain if they have what it takes to do what needs to be done. Like Wyatt Erp before the OK Coral, like Luke wondering if he has the chutzpah to take on Darth Vader, or even Disney's Elsa worrying that her frozen powers are just too much, we have been telling this story for a long time.
Sometimes, we are called to a particular role.
This week is both Shabbat Parah, the first special Shabbat that precedes Passover (Yes, the countdown has begun), and Parashat Ki Tisa. The Torah portion this week also has a certain cinematic quality to it. This week, we tell the story of how the Israelite's built and worshiped the golden calf, and the consequences that flowed from that, most significantly, how Moses hurled the sacred tablets from his hands, smashing them at the foot of the mountain.
Before that very significant scene, we meet another character, who like Moses, is called to his sacred vocation. In Exodus 31:1-3, we read: "And God spoke to Moses saying:
I have called out by name, Betzalel ben Uri, ben Chur, from the tribe of Judah
I have imbued him with Godly spirit, with wisdom, with intelligence, with knowledge, and in every kind of craft."
God singles out Betzalel as the artist and craftsman who will build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, God's dwelling place in the Israelite camp. Betzalel is called to this mission. And God gives Betzalel the spirit, knowledge base, and ability to fulfill this task.
Betzalel knows kung fu.
Throughout Torah, God singles people out, calling them to particular roles. In Lech L'cha, Avram heeds God's call to get up and go from his home of origin to the land that God will show him. In pain from the tumult of the twins she carries, Rebecca calls out to God, asking why she even exists. God tells her that she is fulfilling a sacred role, to impart generations into the world who will be in covenantal relationship with God. Joseph tells his brothers upon their reuniting that he realizes he is on a sacred mission. God sent him through his trials so that he could rise to a position of power in Egypt and help his family again. Moses, too, was called at the Burning Bush, even though he remains doubtful about his abilities throughout his lifetime, to be God's prophet, to be the Israelite's leader, and to be the first to impart Torah to all. God calls people by name.
About Betzalel, Rashi describes the gifts that God gives him. Chokhmah is what a person hears from another, learning from it and making it their own. T'vunah emerges from one's own heart and mind. It is the insight we make for ourselves. And Da'at is Ruach HaKodesh, the spirit of holiness. These are the skills that God gives to Betzalel to fulfill the task of building the Mishkan.
Rashi points out that God does not only call Betzalel to his role and then leave him without any tools. The same tools that Betzalel has come to develop for himself, unbeknownst to him perhaps at the time, were always part of God's plan. That the training that Betzalel was doing was all leading up to this opportunity, to be the artist and craftsman who would execute God's blueprints for the sacred dwelling. When we are called to a particular task, God also gives gifts. And these gifts are far from magic. The gift of understanding that comes with experience, knowledge that comes with study, and insight that comes with focused dedication are earthly gifts, obtainable and sacred. Rather than seeing Betzalel as imbued with a magic ability, Rashi invites us to consider that anyone can be called. And that the contributions we make, no matter how seemingly mundane, have the opportunity to be filled with Ruach HaKodesh. It's about how we frame what we do.
Sometimes, we are called to a particular role. And sometimes, we are called to a specific moment.
That moment came for Esther. We were reminded of that this past week in our Megillah reading. Having learned of Haman's evil plan to eradicate the Jews of Persia, Mordechai informs Esther, his niece, who has since become queen. Her Jewishness remains concealed, and she worries about revealing that part of herself to her king and husband. Mordechai replies "And who knows, perhaps it was for this moment you have risen to royalty" (Esther 4:14).
Famously, the Book of Esther does not once mention God. Yet, in Mordechai's pushing Esther to do something, that she has to do something lest the bad guy wins, you can hear the echoes of the notion of calling. This is your moment, says Mordechai to Esther, take it.
I've been thinking about being called not just to a role but to a particular moment in time because the longer the protests go on in Israel, as long as more and more Israelis assert themselves for the sake of their democracy, I hear that same echo of calling. That there is something about this moment calling out to the regular Israeli, waking them up to the realities with which they have been living, addressing them directly, seemingly encouraging them to fight for the soul of their country. The short-term pessimist in me worries about what is happening in Israel, especially as violence increases, significantly as settler violence rises. But the long-term optimist in me remains hopeful that this and other shifts will continue to inspire Israelis to say, This is not who we are.
Sometimes we are called to a role like Betzalel, sometimes we are called to a moment like Esther, and every once in a while, there are other, smaller moments of calling that pull our attention to something important. Not all callings have to be earth quaking, mountaintop moments. They can be small bushes that burn unconsumed, that were there all along, that suddenly we notice. Maybe it is a poem that has been calling out to us, a word or phrase in the prayerbook that resonates differently than before, or a simple conversation with a friend that needed to happen at that moment, but you could have never predicted it. Like the person who finishes a novel saying, "That was exactly what I needed to read right now," we each need these small moments in which something calls out to us and causes us to take notice. To be called in such a way "[catches] us off guard and [breaks] through our regular routines. [It calls] us to pause and to take note, ask not that we speak or do something immediately, but rather that we stop and listen."1 These moments of pausing and consideration are a call, too, the quieter experiences that can also cause transformations within us.
Last night, I had an impromptu dinner with two community members after attending a Jewish Community Relations Council reception in Boston. One of these folks asked me what drew me to the rabbinate.
I wish I had had a Betzalel or Esther moment in which God called out, saying, "Neil Hirsch! To the rabbinate, you go!" I envy my Christian colleagues who speak of being called to their church, who have deep faith that their tasks situated within their congregations are imbued with divine purpose. I admire their congregants who describe their own involvement in the church as a ministry. My calling was more of the quiet sort, being enthralled with a text and wanting to understand it better. The process of turning Torah and Jewish learning again and again has been my continual call. I have also heard the call in living rooms during shiva, and on a tour bus talking with confirmation students. Stack these experiences on top of one another, and my call to serve continues to grow. A calling adapts and evolves. It matures along with us. Hearing God's call to sacred tasks transforms over time as we migrate more understanding, thought, and prayer into our consideration of that call. Hearing the call in the smaller moments would be like if Moses had dug up the burning bush, and taken it with him, continuing to stoke the fire, enjoying its warmth, cultivating the light and heat it emits.
I want to re-embrace the notion of calling through the more mundane moments, those small noticings we cannot ignore. Sometimes the little thing makes us pause. Sometimes, the moment grabs us and calls us to attention. And sometimes, we are made for a role, if only we are to embrace it. I wonder, as you reflect on your abilities and talents, how would you reply if I asked you what your calling is? Have you ever felt called? Called to a role or task, called in a particular moment, or felt something or someone meaningful calling out to you for your attention? What was it like to answer that call, and are you still responding to it?
When a call comes to a first responder, they head out the door to save a life, to keep people safe, and to address the emergency. When God calls out to Betzalel, Moses, Esther, Rebecca, Avram and Sarai, Joseph, and so many of our forebears, they say yes. I want to invite us to open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to the possibility of God calling us, personally, in this time, in this place, for some sacred reason. And I want to encourage us to listen and embrace those calls, soft as they may be. Because when they do, they can transform us for the better.
May God take notice of us for our gifts of understanding, ability, and soul. And may we each do what we can to share those gifts with others in our world. So that together, we can build sanctity in our own lives.
1: Moules, Nancy J., ed. _Conducting Hermeneutic Research: From Philosophy to Practice_. Critical Qualitative Research, vol. 19. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2015.