The “Boring” Parts of the Torah

Sermon given March 20, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Last year, Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a commentary on this week’s Torah portion. He called it, “The Boring Part of the Torah.” Poor Lora. Imagine scheduling your Bat Mitzvah, only later to learn that the portion is “boring.” If a rabbi calls a Torah portion “boring,” it must really be a yawn!

On one level, it’s true. The portion for this Shabbat could cure insomnia. For several weeks already, we’ve been reading about the construction of the Tabernacle, which was the portable Temple that the Israelites carried with them through their wanderings in the desert. This week, once again, we have more of the same — an exhaustive list of the building materials, a detailed description of the construction, and all the particulars of the dedication — fascinating reading if you’re an ancient Israelite Priest, but pretty exhausting for the rest of us. Adding insult to injury, this picayune subject is the focus of all but one or two of the last fifteen chapters of the Book of Exodus, and four out of five consecutive weekly portions.

To her credit, Lora never complained about her Torah portion. I was more fortunate than the unlucky Associate Rabbi who had to work with me before my Bar Mitzvah. I, too, had a seemingly “boring” portion, so I asked the rabbi if I couldn’t just read something else. The Torah is filled with intriguing stories and inspiring directives, many of them highly concentrated in just a few weekly portions. Why couldn’t we just spread those “good” parts through the year, and skip the “boring” parts of the Torah? Reform Judaism departs from the tradition in many other significant arenas. Shouldn’t a committee of learned and creative rabbis study the entire Torah, select the most moving passages, and assign those to the weeks of the year?

The justifications for adopting this new procedure are legion. Not only could we avoid boredom, we could also skip over passages that seem totally irrelevant to modern Judaism. Out would go chapter upon chapter from Leviticus, all about animal sacrifice in the ancient Temple. We could even avoid the Bible’s unequal treatment of women and its sections condoning slavery. Best of all, we could excise selections that are repugnant to us. We would eschew, for example, the stoning of the rebellious son and God’s requirement for a war against idolators: that we utterly destroy all men, women, children, and even the livestock. Some parts of the Torah aren’t just “boring,” but downright despicable, or so it seems.

So why don’t we simply select more felicitous sections and leave out the others? Many would argue that we must consider K’lal Yisrael, the world-wide community of the Jewish people. There is great value in knowing that the very same Torah portion is being read this Shabbat at our sister synagogues in San Antonio and throughout the world, be they Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, in Jerusalem, Buenos Aries or Waco. If we changed our Torah readings, we would not just be departing from thousands of years of tradition, but we would be separating from our fellow Jews.

On the other hand, Reform Judaism has departed from Jewish tradition and other Jews in many important arenas. With proper study and commitment, we sometimes conclude that greater needs and principles require us to develop our own, distinctly Reform approach to Judaism. We may even argue that this willingness to change the tradition is the leading hallmark of Reform Judaism.

Perhaps, though, there is a more profound reason for us to maintain the traditional Torah reading cycle. Let’s reflect for a moment on the writings of Rabbi Waskow, who composed that commentary, “The Boring Part of the Torah.” You might have guessed at his conclusion. There is no truly boring, superfluous, or extraneous part of the Torah. There are, however, some portions that challenge us to work harder, to examine closely, to get beyond our boredom to find the great kernels of wisdom.

Allow me to offer three brief examples of the bright sparks that light up this week’s “boring” portion.

Tomorrow, in the midst of reading about the building of the Tabernacle, Lora will share an unusual interlude. The workers come to Moses and complain that the people are giving too many donations for the building. The artisans are overwhelmed. Moses commands the people to stop giving gifts, and the construction proceeds.

Are we not sometimes like those Israelites in the desert, trying too give so much to our loved ones that we smother them? Worse, we may have nothing left for ourselves. What a profound teaching in the midst of a “boring” portion.

In the selection I read a few moments ago, God’s Presence fills the Tent of Meeting, and Moses can not enter. If Moses can’t be where God is so totally present, then surely no lesser mortal can. But isn’t God everywhere, and doesn’t God’s power pervade all time and space?

Maybe the Torah is suggesting something else. If God were truly all-powerful, we would have no power, and therefore could not exercise free will. God must withdraw a bit, if humans are to be truly present. God is always there, hovering over us like the cloud over the Tabernacle. But God does not intervene in every moment of our lives, protecting us from danger and saving us from ourselves. God can not totally inhabit the Tabernacles of our own lives, for if God did, then, like Moses, we would be unable to enter, to act, in short, to be fully human.

Finally, let’s meditate on that cloud, hovering over the Tabernacle, providing shade by day, the warmth and light of fire by night. We may not be blessed with such tangible evidence of God’s presence, and yet the message is clear: God can be alive for us in a variety of ways, depending upon our needs. Our God can be stern when we turn astray, and forgiving as we return; comforting when we are in pain, and inspiring when we are on the move. God is not limited to any one form or image or role in our lives. Rather, God provides shade when we’re too bright and warmth when our world is cold. Is that the message of a “boring” Torah portion?

Come to think of it, Torah portions are rather like people. Some are immediately attractive and interesting to us, others boring, and some obnoxious. As my Confirmation class students constantly remind me, each one of these people is created in the image of God. They know this, because they learned it from their teacher, Bobi Stern. That piece of godliness is easier to find in some people than in others. More difficult people, like less attractive Torah positions, require us to search more deeply, to find the good, to embrace it, and to learn from it.

So let us look very carefully into the words of a boring chapter of Torah, and let us search deeply into the heart of an uninteresting person. There may we find a teaching, a truth, that nobody else has ever seen. There may we discover a spark of God that we never expected. Then, we may even find that the “boring” parts of the Torah are also the most inspiring.