Author Archives: Marisa James

Marisa James

About Marisa James

Marisa Elana James graduated from Makom Hebrew High School and the University of Connecticut, and currently lives in Jerusalem primarily focused on studying Medieval Jewish text and history at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Parashat Pekudei: Building God’s Beautiful Bayit; or, Queer Eye for the Desert Mishkan

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James examines Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei and how we can all appreciate the beauty of a complex world.

When I first read this week’s parashah, with their detailed lists of the sockets, pegs and posts that go into building the Mishkan, I could only imagine that the children of Israel had somehow ended up at the Sinai IKEA. I pictured Moses, in a burst of confidence after getting everyone across the sea, picking up the “A_rk oöf Tabêrnäkkle” kit and making everyone sit down to decipher wordless instructions on how to build the thing.

But really, there’s something lovely about the time and care that goes into all of these descriptions. Last week’s portion Vayakhel and and this week’s portion Pekudei continue our languorous journey through the design and creation of the tabernacle. During their 430 years in Egypt, laboring as slaves, building stark, massive pyramids for a succession of pharaohs, the children of Israel have been deprived of beauty. As we’ve seen, they have lacked imagination until now; they bitterly complain to Moses at every turn, until he produces yet another miracle, which they promptly forget again when they are hungry, or frightened, or want something tangible to worship.

But in the building of the Mishkan, the children of Israel become artists. Yes, there are specific instructions for how to build it, but each member of the community, we are told, gives what they can: their goods, their effort, and their talent. And we are privileged to read about the results in loving, careful, artistic detail. Beauty is a necessity, both for Moses and the Israelites then, and for us now.

Moses says, “If a person feels like giving an offering to God, bring any of the following: gold, silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair, reddened ram’s skins, blue processed hides, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, fragrances for the anointing oil and perfume incense, as well as sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:5-9)

If they feel like giving an offering to God, says Moses. This is not like last week’s building of the golden calf, when Aaron, in his frustration with the Israelites, says, “Take the rings off the ears of your wives and children, [. . .] Bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The creative impulse cannot be demanded. In the creation of the Mishkan there can be no room for those who might give reluctantly, or unwillingly, or all exactly the same. Every individual piece of silver and copper and wood and cloth must be given freely and with love in order to create the place where God can reside.

800px-Figures_The_erection_of_the_Tabernacle_and_the_Sacred_vesselsAnd the Mishkan is not being created from gold alone; Moses lists so many options for what each person could contribute that we’re left in amazement about where all the materials come from. Each of the Israelites apparently has unexpected and diverse resources that we haven’t seen until now. They bring items of every color and texture, metals and stones and fibers, along with talents which until now have remained hidden.

Why is it so important that we read several chapters of this description? A few p’sukim (verses), two or three verses, could have told us that God asked Moses to make a beautiful dwelling-place, the Mishkan, of gold and silver, with the priests in robes embroidered with “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, twisted.” (39:24) A few p’sukim could have told us that the Israelites gave freely of their possessions and skills, and that the Mishkan was completed to God’s specifications.

After centuries of famine and slavery, backbreaking work followed by a perilous escape, the Israelites need time to dwell on beauty, and so do we. It’s easy to fall into the victimization of Israel in mitzrayim (Egypt/ the narrow place) and the alternating tedium and terror of wandering in the desert and have no hope for the future. Taking time to see the world around us in every inch of its detail is one way to restore our souls.

Similarly, in our own lives, it can be difficult to avoid feeling constantly victimized and oppressed, especially as members of the Jewish community, the queer community, and other minority communities. Our multiple marginalized identities frequently overlap to make us prime targets for the “hate-mongers” in our world. And in our work towards social justice and equal treatment, it can be hard to raise our heads from the struggle and appreciate the sheer beauty of the communities we have created. Just as the Isarelites found beauty in the creation of the Mishkan, it’s also necessary for us to move beyond our painful interactions with the world and take delight in the places where we are accepted and loved for all of our different aspects.

How do we do this in our daily lives? I live in New York City, where I’m constantly so inundated by my surroundings that it’s easy to block it all out. But sometimes, I need to stop and listen to a street performer with a beautiful voice. Watch my friends’ sleeping newborn children and imagine their dreams. Delight in the amazing diversity of the communities that have welcomed me, and in the beautiful visions we share of the world we’re trying to create. It isn’t enough to simply notice the beauty of the world—it’s necessary that we each bring our diverse talents and gifts to continue the work of making our world into a Mishkan where God can reside.

 

Posted on February 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Parashat Ki Tavo: The Deuteronomy Dinner Party: As Many Chairs as We Need

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James discusses how the Biblical injunction to care for the vulnerable applies to today’s LGBT Jews. This week’s Torah Queeries essay was written in 2007.

Creative Common/Toby Simkin

Creative Common/Toby Simkin

As we read Parashat Ki Tavo, we’re also in the midst of the Haftorot of Consolation, which we read every week from Tisha B’Av until the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. We’re also about half-way through the month of Elul, which precedes the beginning of our new year. We are threatened with punishment; we are consoled; we are expected to recite every day of this month our wish to dwell peacefully in the house of God. There’s a lot on our plates, and I know I find it difficult to stay focused on the Parashah or my preparations for the High Holidays when there are such fierce and competing emotions battering me from all sides. Continue reading

Posted on August 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Parashat Devarim: Out from the Mountain: Finding the Good Land

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James sees common themes in the need for the ancient Israelites, and LGBT people throughout history, to keep moving forward.

Creative Common/Jong Soo(Peter) Lee

Creative Common/Jong Soo(Peter) Lee

And God said unto Moses: it is time for a travelogue, so that the Israelites may see where they have been, and what they have done, and that you have been a good and worthy tour guide to them. Remind them that there is no refund if they are not satisfied with their 40-year tour of the desert of Mitzraim [Egypt, or "the narrow places"], nor do they have the option to change the route of their tour. They must stay with the group, or else God and Moses are not responsible for what might happen if they piss off the locals, or eat their food without paying for it.

And God and Moses said unto the Israelites: Look forward! Get up! Keep moving! Continue reading

Posted on July 8, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Granting Peace in our Land: Observing our Greater Shabbatot

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Marisa James considers what the sabbatical laws can teach us about the necessity of advocating for the powerless.

Creative Commons/Mike LaPlante

Creative Commons/Mike LaPlante

The teachings in this week’s paired parshiyot, Behar and Behukotai, are meant to prevent us from becoming greedy. At the beginning of Behar, literally “in the mountain” at Sinai, the first thing God tells Moses is “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:2-4)

Why do we give the earth a shabbat every seventh year? The lifespan of the earth is much longer than ours, so maybe every seven years is enough! But we must give the earth a rest, and acknowledge that it does not belong to us. We are meant to be equal partners with the earth, and treat it with the same kindness we hope it will show us. Continue reading

Posted on April 30, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Language of Blessings

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Marisa James plays with ideas of language, blessings, and curses as they appear in Genesis.

Blessings and curses in this week's parasha

Creative Commons/Rachel-Esther

Last month, I had the dubious honor of reading parashat Ki Tavo at my shul on Shabbat morning, including the tokhekha, the list of all the curses which will come up on the people of Israel if we do not keep the commandments. It’s a long, difficult piece of text, and most Torah readers intentionally read this section faster than usual, and more quietly, to take away the sting of having to listen to so many curses on Shabbat.

Unfortunately, I spent the week before Shabbat Ki Tavo in bed, sick, fighting a losing battle against the flu. When Saturday arrived, I stumbled through the harder parts of the tokhekha, reading them slower instead of faster. But at least it was only the curses I stumbled through; when I read the blessings, they were loud and clear. As one of my friends said, “Better that your tongue should never be comfortable easily pronouncing curses.”

Continue reading

Posted on October 15, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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