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February 16, 2018 Sermond

02/09/2018 09:06:03 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Terumah 2018


Permit me the luxury of ruining Gilbert and Sullivan, or perhaps even music, for you.


Prithee, pretty maiden—prithee, tell me true

(hey but I’m doleful, willow willow waly)

Have you e’er a lover a-dangling after you

(Hey willow waly-o!)

I would fain discover

If you have a lover

(hey willow waly-o)

This song, Prithee Pretty Maiden from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta Patience has been STUCK IN MY HEAD since Saturday afternoon. Literally I’ve been walking around—throughout DC during L’taken, at home, in the office, at the hospital, humming this tune, tunelessly. Why? Well, it first got there this past Saturday, at my wife’s concert Performance of the Chester County Gilbert and Sullivan 30th anniversary Gala., which became a who’s who of the local G&S circuit. But it wasn’t just because it was performed at the Gala. Being an anniversary celebration, they asked past performers to come and revisit their old favorites. Interestingly, the song—which is a duet between two potential young lovers—was not sung by someone who had played the role in Chester County. Instead, it was sung by a 70-ish year old woman and her 90-ish year old longtime partner, who first played the role when he was a young man in the D’oyly Carte (those of you who know something about Gilbert & Sullivan will understand that that is a Very Big Deal). I’d heard them perform together before, of course, but to hear a nonogenerian sing a song meant for a callow youth, and sing it beautifully for someone that age, and with all the weight and gravity of decades of life experience, made a profound impression on me. Seeing the two of them on stage and hearing his voice in particular, was truly magical. You could hear the echo of his younger self in the performance, but with all these other layers of life, all at the same time.

As I’ve been unable to let go of this Victorian earworm (and by the way, you’re welcome), I’ve been thinking about the truth in the layers of this performance. What do I mean? Well, let me quote journalist Sarah Tuttle Singer for a moment. She wrote this week “The thing about the Old City is it's built on layers and each layer is true.” She’s talking archeology and culture, but I think there’s a truth there about life and memory as well. In the Old city of Jerusalem, we have a modern house built over a Byzantine church built over a Roman shop built over a Judean granary. And each existed in its own time and had its own integrity, which the archeological record allows us to see, and none could exist without the other, each structure literally supported by the other. And that’s true in the Torah, as layer upon layer of commentary and interpretation helps shape our reading and understanding of scripture, each influencing and relating to the other, and each with its own deep meaning. Each layer is true. And in our lives we have memory stacked on top of memory on top of memory. We remember our childhood and our youth and draw comparisons to who we are today, and each has its own integrity, and one cannot exist without the other. Each layer is true. So when we come to a synagogue, a sanctuary, we use the prayerbook that is there now, and sing the songs that are sung now, and hear the words of the rabbi who is there now, but we remember the texture of the prayerbook of our childhood, and the sound of the voice of the cantor of our youth, and the words of the rabbi when we were young parents. We look at the carpet today and remember the parquet floor of yesterday. We look at the Eternal Light of today but we remember the light that shone over our child’s bar mitzvah celebration. We hear the voices of the people around us, but we remember the voices who used to sing joyfully with us from before. Sometimes, when we sing Ein Keloheinu I can hear the voices of the old men who sang with gusto when I was a child, or when I pick up Mishkan T’fillah I can feel the pink ribbon from the blue Gates of Prayer between my fingers, or the rough, cloth-like texture of the Gray Gates. And sometimes when I read a prayer I can hear the voice of one of my teachers reading that prayer as I recite it, or I remember what it was like to stand on a bimah the first time and hear the congregation read responsively as I read. And all those layers are true. I know I cannot go back to the sanctuary of my youth, to the prayerbook and the music, to say nothing of the congregation; the past is in the past. But it is present within me, and it informs me, and as I pray today’s prayers in today’s sanctuary I give honor to those layers of experience. And all of those layers are true. And all of those layers are sacred.

A few moments ago we recited from the Torah God’s command to bring gifts, in order to make God a sanctuary that God may dwell among us. And we could spend a lot of time on the minutia of the various gifts and what it means to make a physical sanctuary, a mishkan, a tabernacle. And there is a truth to that understanding, of wealth utilized for sacred purpose. And, I would suggest to you that, among the gold and silver and lapis lazuli and dolphin skins and crimson thread, one of the gifts we bring is the layers of our experience and memory. And that when we share those layers we are sharing what is most true about ourselves, our experience, our love: our past and present and even our future. And more than that; the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be taken as a commentary on this portion, said, “I did not speak to your ancestors nor command them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices; rather, this is what I commanded them, saying: ‘listen to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. You shall walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” Through our memories, through the layers of our experience, we can hear God’s voice, we can feel ourselves renewed and inspired again to fulfill God’s mitzvah. Different now, because we are different. But honoring and celebrating what came before.

The past is a gift, the layers of memory an offering, and from them we build a sanctuary of meaning and inspiration. And in that sanctuary we encounter holiness. And like the Torah, like the Old City of Jerusalem, like the song of a young man sung by one who’s lived a lifetime, it is true. Hey, Willow waly-O.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784