Leadership Matters — Shabbat Pinhas 5780 (2020)

Leadership matters. Among the many lessons of the current crisis, that one stands out. But what constitutes good leadership? Are there qualities or characteristics that make one a good leader? What does it really take to lead well? 

A dramatic moment in Parashat Pinhas raises those very questions. Moses, reminded that he won’t enter the Land with the people, is commanded to “ascend these heights of Abarim (har ha’avarim) and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was…” (Numbers 27:12-13)

Moses responds with these rich words: ‘Let the Lord — Source of the breath of all flesh — appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’ (Numbers 27:16-17)

It’s worth noting that even in this highly emotional moment, Moses ‘concerns himself with the needs of the community’ (as Rashi puts it) rather than with his own needs. In Jacob Milgrom’s words: “It is thus another distinctive mark of Moses’ leadership that he plans for his own succession.” Leaders, in other words, need to be thinking not just about the present but also, and perhaps more importantly, about the future. 

That said, the Torah’s great leadership insight here is very much in the present tense. To lead a community is akin to shepherding sheep, suggests Moses, himself originally a shepherd. There’s much to unpack in the sheep and shepherd metaphor. I suggest that the key to understanding it is the word ‘ruah’ — spirit. Moses refers to God as the ‘Source of the breath/spirit (ruah) of all flesh (kol basar). God, in turn, responds that Moses should appoint Joshua who has ruah bo — spirit in him. 

Noting that connection, the early rabbis put it all together brilliantly. “Just as you said ‘Source of all breath,’ meaning that God knows each one, appoint (as leader) one who knows to walk with each one in line with her/his temperament.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Pinhas #11) Shepherds know the temperament, the mind, the unique attributes of each and every one of their sheep. A little known 18/19th century Hasidic master, R. Avraham Dov of Avritch draws it out with a flourish: “The leader must know the souls of each and every one, and know the service that pertains to that soul, and to draw them near and connect them to their root-source.” To herd sheep is to lead; to lead is to shepherd. And it matters profoundly. 

One of Israel’s greatest 20th century artists, Siona Tagger (1900-1988) captures this quality of shepherding, that is, of leadership, in two  remarkable paintings from the 1930’s. Have a look —

And Shabbat Shalom…

Let Freedom Ring – Shabbat Hukkat-Balak 5780 (2020)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” 

A lot to unpack in these well known words, first shared publicly on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia. What exactly are ‘self-evident’ truths? Are there other truths that are less evident, not evident at all? What, or better, who, is meant by the term ‘men’? Women too? Men and women of color? And what, pray tell, are ‘certain unalienable Rights’? Are there rights that are ‘alienable’? Are there Rights beyond these three that are also ‘unalienable’? 

This 244th anniversary of the first presentation of Thomas Jefferson’s rich words coincides with Shabbat Hukkat-Balak, a Sabbath with a doubled Torah portion. The central episode in each parasha, I suggest, speaks to the occasion of our celebration of American Independence in intriguing and powerful ways. 

Jan Steen ‘Moses Striking the Rock’ 1660-1661 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Hukkat features the story of Moses hitting, rather than speaking to, the rock in response to the peoples’ plea for water. Aviva Zornberg’s eloquent recounting of that moment caught my eye and ear. “The rock and the rod — these are the objects that mark this transitional moment between the wilderness and the Land. As we remember their history, these objects begin to vibrate before our eyes; they are things that are charged with narratives, with laws — ultimately, with words. They gleam secretly with hope and fear, with past and future, with the intense experience of those who live with them.” [Zornberg, ‘Bewilderments’ p. 200]

The current moment in American life feels very much like a transitional one ‘between the wilderness and the Land.’ Just substitute monuments, statues, flags, names on school buildings, military forts, for ‘the rock and the rod’. Indeed, ‘things … charged with narratives’ objects that ‘gleam secretly with hope and fear, with past and future, with the intense experience of those who live with them.’

And Balak brings us the tale of Balaam, hired to curse the people of Israel, who serves up blessings and words of praise that we continue to utter as aspirational statements to this day. Balaam’s best known words — Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov, mish’kenotekha yisrael – How good are your tents Jacob, your dwellings o Israel — result from his having looked over the encampment of Israel, noticing the arrangement of the camp, and finding himself overtaken by the Divine spirit. What did he see? asks the Talmud. ‘He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, (ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy). And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.’ [Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 60a] And, indeed, according to the Mishna (Bava Batra 3:7), that is the law — ‘A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a courtyard belonging to partners, so as to ensure that the residents will enjoy a measure of privacy.’

How, in other words, can we live together as a community and at the same time protect and preserve individual needs, prerogatives, and rights? What do we owe one another, and how do we protect and care for one another without losing sight of our individual needs and concerns? Those very questions, admittedly limited in scope and horizon, animated the gathering of, yes, white men, who issued the Declaration of Independence on a hot July day in 1776. Those questions are with us still. 

Again, we Americans stand at a ‘transitional moment between the wilderness and the Land’. Again, we struggle with which narratives, which objects, which laws, which words should command our allegiance and loyalty. Again, we grapple with finding the balance between the needs and rights of individuals and the well being and wholeness of the community. Again, it’s the 4th of July. Let freedom ring. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Renewing Goodness in the World — Shabbat Korach 5780 (2020)

Parashat Korach tells the story of a great rebellion, or perhaps two or three great rebellions, against Moses and Aaron’s leadership of the people of Israel. Confounding on its face, the Torah’s narrative has long invited interpretation that seeks out a deeper meaning for the squabble between cousins and notables detailed in the plain words of the text. What is this dispute really about? And what might it have to do with our lives, our experience? 

An astonishing teaching of Rav Kook’s (R. Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865-1935) helped me makes some sense of this perplexing tale. Writing during the very dark days of World War I, Kook described the ‘disintegration of the conventional concepts of holiness and faith.’ He lived through a moment when everything fell apart and he seems to have felt it viscerally. Mystic (and optimist) that he was, Rav Kook sensed something deeper in spiritual meaning than that provided by a mere accounting of, and lament over, the terrible destruction and horrifying violence of the time. Some larger force, he suspected, was at work, a process that he named ‘bringing about the renewal of goodness in the world.’

Here’s the astonishing part. Kook’s metaphor is that of ‘the decay that comes before the growth from the seed,’ which in his telling has two primary aspects. First, it ‘frees the life-force that was hidden, buried inside the seed, and then this force is freed, and gives life to glorious blooming.’ Secondly, it ‘creates space for the innovation of a new, more perfect, form, that does not suffer from the flaws of the previous form.’ Disintegration, in other words, is painful and bewildering, and it sets the stage for new flowering, new ideas, new forms. Our moment, reminiscent of Rav Kook’s a century ago, holds out similar possibility. 

[Full-page miniature of the twelve rods with the flourishing rod of Aaron in the middle. F. 519v from‘The Northern French Miscellany’ France, 1277-1286. British Library]

So what does all of that have to do with Korach? Aviva Zornberg frames the dispute between Korach and Moses in a similar way. Building on the insights of two 19th century Hasidic masters — R. Nahman of Breslov and R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica —  Zornberg maps what she calls ‘the Korach syndrome’ which ‘consists both of a blindness to difference, to gaps, between people and of a similar blindness to internal gaps, places of difference with one’s conscious self. These inner blind spots make growth impossible.’ Unable even to recognize the ‘disintegration’ of his moment, Korach has no ability to see, imagine, or articulate the new growth that might come next. Zornberg sums up Korach’s failure this way: ‘averse to gaps, wounds, spaces, (he) cannot struggle with his limitation; by the same measure, he cannot access his subjective creativeness…’ 

You may know the Leonard Cohen version of this very same piece of wisdom:

Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

It feels like there are many cracks in many things right about now in our lives, in our country, in the world. Recognizing our moment’s ‘disintegration’ is painful and unsettling (to say the least). And (that’s and, not but!) noting those cracks, feeling them, embracing them even, is the first and perhaps necessary step in the process of ‘bringing about the renewal of goodness in the world.’ That, precisely, is ‘how the light gets in.’ Korach can’t (or won’t) see it. Moses can and does. Let’s hope that we can as well. 

Shabbat Shalom

Grasshoppers and Angels — Shabbat Sh’lah L’kha 5780 (2020)

You know the story. Moses sends out scouts to survey the ‘land of Canaan’ in advance of the Israelites’ entrance into the land promised them by God. Twelve scouts, one from each tribe, tour the land, and return with a split decision on the question of whether to conquer or not. Ten say ‘we’ll never succeed, as the land “consumes its inhabitants.” Two – Joshua and Caleb – say ‘let’s go, God will see to our success.’ Rebellion against Moses, a plague against the people, and forty years of wandering in the wilderness ensue. As Aviva Zornberg puts its, “this is the critical point, the great failure, that radically changes the future history of the people.” (Bewilderments, p. 119)

“On the face of it,” Zornberg writes, “this a story about fear.” Also, on the face of it, this a story about faith and confidence. But Zornberg correctly notes another theme underneath the narrative surface. “…seeing and seeing oneself precipitate the narrative into a dynamic of madness, of images, fantasies, and projections.” 

Moses’ direction to the scouts underscores the point. “When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country,  וּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא  and see what kind of country it is.” (Numbers 13:17-18) R Elimelekh of Lizhensk, an 18th century Hasidic master, suggestively unpacks that verse to describe multiple levels of ‘seeing.’ ‘See what kind of country it is’ means to perceive both its physical aspects (et ha’artziut v’hagashmiut),  while also distinguishing between that which is essential and that which is transient. 

Even more to the point are the words of the ten scouts who conclude that entering into the Land is ill advised.  “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have looked in their eyes.” — וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃  A delicious Midrash brilliantly unpacks these phrases: 

They said, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” God said, “This I can overlook. But, ‘And so we looked in their eyes’ — here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn’t look like angels in their eyes?” [Tanhuma Buber Shelah 11]

That last line of the Midrash sticks with me. מי יאמר שלא הייתם בעיניהם כמלאכים – Who told you that you didn’t look like angels in their eyes? Who told you, indeed? The ten scouts fail to imagine, that is, to see, a better possibility. My friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held puts it trenchantly and brilliantly: “Ultimately, the question posed by the text is whether what we imagine possible is limited to what we see before us, or whether we can discern possibilities not immediately apparent to the eye.” (Heart of Torah, volume 2, p. 127) Ten of twelve scouts cannot. Can we? 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Long Road Ahead — Shabbat Beha’alot’kha 5780 (2020)

“There’s a long road ahead, and a lot to leave behind…” 

In the past 13 weeks of stay at home time, those song lyrics have quite often found their way into our morning tefillah at Beth Am Israel. They strike the right tone, and articulate the right sentiment for this strange and challenging time. There is a long road ahead to healing and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic collapse that has accompanied, and sadly and painfully a lot to leave behind. 

Since George Floyd’s murder under the knee of Derek Chauvin just two weeks ago, Delaney and Bonnie’s fifty year old words have felt even more to the point. There is a truly long road ahead to racial justice and reconciliation in our country. And there is a 400 year old history of humiliation and violence aching to be left behind. 

Parashat Beha’alot’kha brings us similar language in a perhaps surprising but also remarkably relevant context. A year after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses instructs the people to observe Passover ‘with all of its right and rules’ – k’khol hukotav u’k’khol mishpatav (Numbers 9:3) It turns out that not every member of the people is able to participate. A group of individuals petition Moses: “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (9:7)

After checking with God, Moses presents an alternative possibility, one that our tradition calls Pesah Sheni – Second Passover. Here’s the new rule, the ‘new normal’ if you will: ‘When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord,they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight.’ (9:10-11) 

How long a journey qualifies? And to/from where? The Talmudic rabbis wrestled with those somewhat technical questions and were also aware of an older tradition that placed a dot, an editor’s mark, over the word r’hokah – long – in written Torah scrolls. That mark remains to this day. Professor Saul Lieberman, the great 20th century Talmudist, suggests that the dots over words in a Torah scroll – by tradition there are ten – are meant to highlight ‘unusal allusion(s)’ in the text. An interpreter, he writes, is meant to ask “What in the world does it signify?”

Ramban, the great 13th century sage, has a powerfully suggestive answer. ‘It is possible that the reason for the dot is that it was ‘a long journey for him to do the Passover,’ not that it was actually, physically far…’ A long journey metaphorically, temperamentally, philosophically. Freedom, alas, doesn’t automatically happen at the initial opportunity. A lot needs to be left behind first.

Michelle Alexander’s powerful essay in the New York Times earlier this week spells out both the missed opportunities of the past and the hopeful possibility of the current moment. ‘We find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.’ 

It’s Pesah Sheni all over again, another opportunity for freedom to be proclaimed and for justice to roll down like the waters.  And there’s a long road ahead. Truly time to leave it all behind. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Been in the Storm So Long — Reflecting on the Death of George Floyd z”l

Been in the Storm So Long

This past week has been a spiritual and emotional roller coaster for all of us; and the ride has been unendingly bumpy. Our emotions, mine at least, have been all over the place, running the gamut from anger and fury to horror, dread, and despair, to fear and anguish, to occasional outbursts of hope and optimism. It hasn’t been easy to find the words.

A week ago George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, a victim of abusive policing. The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, held his knee to a handcuffed Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Watching that moment, and like you I’ve seen it dozens of times over this past week, outraged me. I’m horrified by it with every viewing.

The days and nights since Mr. Floyd’s murder have seen protests in all 50 states, the overwhelming majority of them peaceful, focused and earnest. Many are angered by and frustrated with our society’s ongoing racial injustice and by our country’s ever more militarized pattern of policing. I’m inspired by the extraordinary outpouring of passion, concern, and love that I’ve witnessed. A desire to heal and to make things better is what has brought people into the streets. That’s a beautiful and powerful thing.

Here are some truths that seem clear to me. Racism is real, it is deeply embedded in our culture and our life, and I am very far from immune or innocent. That awareness feels like a first step, a necessary and painful first step, to grappling with what I believe are the real, underlying, issues and realities. Violent, systemic racism has been a central feature of American life from the very beginning. George Floyd’s murder is but the latest manifestation. As an American, as a human being, as a Jew, I am responsible.

Recognizing responsibility, I hope, will lead to action. We really can ‘be the change’ we wish to see in the world. I witnessed a piece of that change yesterday by participating in a remarkable and entirely peaceful protest march in Bryn Mawr and Ardmore organized and led by our own students. Together, we took a knee, kneeling in silence for nine minutes. Together, hundreds walked down Lancaster Avenue to kneel again for nine minutes in front of the Lower Merion Police Building in Ardmore. Together we asserted that human dignity is value number one; how beautiful to see and hear that our kids have learned that lesson! It was powerful and moving and hopeful.

It was, also, just a first step. There is more, so much more, work to be taken on. And that work will be difficult as it will require real and sometimes painful self-reflection. At the bottom of this letter you’ll find links to a number of resources that can help guide all of us. Read them, absorb them, and let’s get to work.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” I’m not enjoying owning that responsibility, but that, I believe, is my work right now. I believe further, that it is the work of our community and of the entire American Jewish community. I ask you to join me in that difficult work of making the change by first aspiring to be the change that we wish to see in our world. We can do it. I believe that we must.

Let’s start by praying together along with our neighbors and friends, today. I hope that you will join in tonight’s Interfaith Prayer Vigil via Zoom — https://zoom.us/j/91312988183. Prayer, too, is but a first step. Heschel again: “Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and the course which we should choose.”

Tonight, let us pray, so that tomorrow we can begin to own our responsibility. More on what we can do together and as individuals in the days ahead. ‘Olam hesed yibaneh says the Psalmist; “we shall build a world of love.” We shall, we can, we must.

L’shalom,
Rabbi David

https://insidethekandidish.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/dear-white-people-this-is-what-we-want-you-to-do/

Shavuot — 5780 (2020) — Teachings

Shavuot 5780-2020 — ‘As If I Stood at Sinai’: Two ‘Revelation’ Poems

כֻּלָּם כְּבָר הָלְכוּ אֶל הָהָר וּמְחַכִּים

,מְחַכִּים לִרְאוֹת, בְּשֶׁקֶט רַב מְחַכִּים

שֶׁלֹּא כְּמִנְהָגָם גַּם הַחֲמוֹרִים, גַּם הַגְּמַלִּים

בַּשֶּׁקֶט הַזֶּה צִפּוֹר לֹא צִיְּצָה

,גַּם יְלָדִים עַל כִּתְפֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם

וְהַשֶּׁקֶט רַב מִנְּשׂא כְּמוֹ לִפְנֵי דָּבָר

נוֹרָא וְגָדוֹל וַאֲנִי עוֹד רָצִיתִי

לְהַסְפִּיק וְלִתְלוֹת אֶת הַכְּבָסִים

לַעֲשׂוֹת זְמַן לְעַצְמִי לְתַקֵּן רֵיחוֹתַי

וְחִמַּמְתִּי אֶת הֶחָלָב לַתִּינוֹק, שֶׁלֹּא יִרְעַב

שֶׁלֹּא יִבְכֶּה חָלִילָה, בָּרֶגַע הַלֹּא

מַתְאִים, כַּמָּה זְמַן עַד כְּלוֹת. הַצִּפִּיָּה

,שֶׁתִּתְיַבֵּשׁ הַכְּבִיסָה וְהַתִּינוֹק מָה

אִישׁ לֹא יָדַע

וַאֲנִי רָאִיתִי שֶׁרוּחַ קַלָּה, כְּמוֹ נְשִׁימָתוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ יָשֵׁן, עָבְרָה

בַּכְּבָסִים וְנִפְּחָה כְּרֵסָהּ

שֶׁל כֻּתָּנְתִּי וּמַפַּת הַשַּׁבָּת

הָיְתָה מִפְרָשׂ לָבָן בְּאֶמְצַע הַמִּדְבָּר

וְיָצָאנוּ מִשָּׁם עַל הַתְּכֵלֶת

הַרְחֵק לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ

נִפְרֹט רִמּוֹנִים וְנֹאכַל עֲסִיסָם

לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ

לָאַהֲבָה

.שֵׁם מְפֹרָשׁ

— חוה פנחס-כהן ״שם מפרש״

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, צִפּוֹר לֹא צָוַח, עוֹף לֹא פָּרַח, שׁוֹר לֹא גָּעָה, אוֹפַנִּים לֹא עָפוּ, שְׂרָפִים לֹא אָמְרוּ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ, הַיָּם לֹא נִזְדַּעֲזָע, הַבְּרִיּוֹת לֹא דִּבְּרוּ, אֶלָּא הָעוֹלָם שׁוֹתֵק וּמַחֲרִישׁ, וְיָצָא הַקּוֹל: אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ…כְּשֶׁדִּבֵּר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַר סִינַי, הִשְׁתִּיק כָּל הָעוֹלָם, כְּדֵי שֶׁיֵּדְעוּ הַבְּרִיּוֹת שֶׁאֵין חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְאָמַר: אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ —

[שמות רבה, כ״ט: ט]

——————————————————-

They’ve all gone to the mountain to wait

to wait and see, most quietly they wait,

against their nature even donkeys, even camels

in this quiet a bird did not chirp

even children on their father’s shoulders,

the quiet too much to bear as if before a matter

so awesome and great but I still wished

to finish hanging the laundry

to make time for myself, to refresh my aroma

and I warmed the baby’s milk, lest he be hungry,

lest he cry, perish the thought, at an improper

moment, how much longer till it ends. The expectation

that the laundry will dry and the baby, what.

No one knew

but I saw a light wind, like the breath of a person asleep, pass

through the laundry and inflate the middle

of my shirt and the Sabbath tablecloth

was a white sail in the middle of the wilderness

and we went from there on azure

far to the place where

we’ll open pomegranates and devour their juice

to the place where

love has

a manifest name. 

— Hava Pinhas-Cohen ‘A Manifest Name’

[translation, David C Jacobson]

When the Holy One of Blessing gave the Torah no bird chirped (tzavah), no fowl flew, no ox lowed, Ophanim did not fly, Seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy,” the sea did not move, people did not speak. The world was completely quiet and still and the voice of God, “I am the Lord your God” went out…(God) quieted the whole world so that all creatures would know that no one but God said, “I am the Lord your God.”

[Midrash Shemot Rabbah 29:9]

——————————–

יְעִירוּנִי בְשִׁמְךָ רַעֲיוֹנָי / וְיָשִימוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ לְפָנָי

הֱבִינוּנִי דְבַר נֶפֶש יְצַרְתָּהּ / קְשׁוּרָה בִי וְהִיא נִפְלָאת בְּעֵינָי

וְלִבִּי רָאֲךָ וַיַּאֲמֵן בָּךְ / כְּאִלּוּ מָעֳמָד הָיָה בְּסִינָי

דְּרַשְתִּיךָ בְחֶזְיוֹנַי וְעָבַר / כְּבוֹדְךָ בִּי וְיָרַד בַּעֲנָנָי

הֱקִימוּנִי שְׂעִפַּי מִיְּצוּעַי / לְבָרֵךְ שֵׁם כּבוֹדֶךָ אֲדֹנָי.

— יהודה הלוי

My meditations on Your name aroused me, 

They set before my face Your acts of love,

Revealed to me the soul that You created —

Bound to me, yet past my understanding.

My heart beheld You and was sure of You,

As if I stood myself at Sinai mountain.

I sought You in my dreams; Your glory passed

Before my face, on clouds descending, landing.

My thoughts awakened me to rise from bed,

To bless Your glorious name, O Lord, commanding. 

— Yehudah haLevi 

[translation, Raymond Scheindlin]

————————–

One thing you should keep in mind, O my brother, when reading the things described by me in this chapter. All these are but a few of the many secrets of wisdom you may discover if you search for them with a pure heart and an innocent soul. Having arrived at the highest point of your ability in this respect, you should remember that all you have seen and understood of God’s wisdom and ability as manifested in this world is nothing in comparison to the whole of God’s wisdom and ability. Remember that the part made manifest is revealed only according to necessity, for the sake of humanity, and not in proportion to God’s true ability, which is limitless. But you should appreciate God’s magnitude and omnipotence according to their true value, and fear God proportionately, and not only according to what you can understand of it. [Bahya ibn Paquda ‘Duties of the Heart’, chapter 2] 

——————————————–

אֽוֹדְךָ֗ עַ֤ל כִּ֥י נוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וְ֝נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד׃

וְלִ֗י מַה־יָּקְר֣וּ רֵעֶ֣יךָ אֵ֑ל מֶ֥ה עָ֝צְמוּ רָאשֵׁיהֶֽם׃ 

אֶ֭סְפְּרֵם מֵח֣וֹל יִרְבּ֑וּן הֱ֝קִיצֹ֗תִי וְעוֹדִ֥י עִמָּֽךְ׃

I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made;

Your work is wonderful; I know it very well…

How weighty Your thoughts seem to me, O God, 

How great their number!

I count them — they exceed the grains of sand;

I awake — but am still with You…

[Psalm 139:14,17-18]

——————————————

Abraham ibn Ezra — Commentary on Psalm 139

v. 1 — זה המזמור נכבד מאוד בדרכי השם ואין באלה החמשה ספרים מזמור כמוהו, וכפי בינת אדם בדרכי השם ודרכי הנשמה    יתבונן בטעמיו

This Psalm is very weighty in the ways of the Lord; in these five books (= the five books of the Psalms) there is none like it. Its meaning can be penetrated only to the extent of one’s understanding of the ways of God and the ways of the soul.

v. 14 — וטעם ונפשי יודעת מאד – על דעת רבי יהודה הלוי: משכבו מנוחתו כבוד, נפלאים ממני מעשיך אף על פי שנפשי יודעת מאד

‘I know it very well’ in the opinion of Rabbi Judah Halevi (who rests in glory!) means, ‘Your works are too wonderful for me (i.e. beyond me), even though my soul is very aware.’

v. 17 — ויהיה רעיך כאשר אני חושב בלבי לדעת רעיך, והנה הוא כמראה אלהים והגוף שוכב בהדבק נשמת האדם בנשמה העליונה, אז תראה תמונות נפלאות, על כן הקיצותי ועודי עמך, כי אין זה כדרך כל החלומות

‘Your thoughts’ means that when I think with my heart to know Your thoughts it is like a vision of God: the body is recumbent and the soul of man clings to the highest soul. There it sees marvelous forms. Therefore, ‘I awaken and am still with You,’ for this is not like all (ordinary) dreams.


Solitude Torah — Shavuot 5780/2020

 זלדה  — בשעה מהורהרת זו

בְּשָׁעָה מְהֻרְהֶרֶת זוֹ

מְנֻתֶּקֶת מִכֹּל

 — הִתְעַנַּגְתִּי עַל יְפִי עֲלֵי הַגֶּפֶן

רַק כַּאֲשֶׁר צֵל שֶׁל שָׁלוֹם

שָׁרוּי בְּהָרֵי יְרוּשָׁלַיִם

וְקוֹלוֹת יְקִיצָה שֶׁל צִפֳּרִים

,וְתִינוֹקוֹת מַקִּיפִים אוֹתִי 

וְלֹא בָגַדְתִּי

,וְלֹא דִבַּרְתִּי דֹּפִי

וְאֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה לֹא כִשְּׁפָה

 — אֶת חוּשַׁי 

קוֹלֶטֶת נַפְשִׁי רֶטֶט רָפֶה עַד מְאֹד

שֶׁעוֹבֵר בֶּעָלִים בְּפָגְשָׁם

.אוֹר שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית

יָהּ טָמִיר וְנֶעְלָם

הַצִּילֵנִי מִשְּׁמוּעוֹת רָעוֹת

שֶׁהוֹדְפוֹת לָאֹפֶל

אֶת הַשֶּׁקֶט הַדַּק

,שֶׁל לֵב מִסְתַּכֵּל מִן הַצַּד

כִּי מַה בֵּיתִי וּמַה חַיַּי

בְּיוֹם שֶׁל אֲהָהּ

זֶה הַיּוֹם הַפְּרָאִי

שֶׁמַּשְׁלִיךְ לָאָרֶץ

בְּחֵמָה מְעַוֶּרֶת

אֶת עֶדְנַת הַגֶּפֶן

.וְכָל הֲגִיגָי

 

At this Thought Filled Hour — Zelda

At this thought filled hour

disconnected from everything

I took pleasure in the beauty of grape leaves — 

Only when a shadow of peace

lies on Jerusalem’s hills

and waking voices of birds

and infants surround me,

and I have not betrayed

and I have not slandered,

and a dark dread has not bewitched

my senses —

my soul perceives a very faint tremor

passing among the leaves as they meet

the morning light.

God hidden and concealed

save me from evil tidings

that thrust to obscurity

the delicate quiet

of a heart observing from the side.

For what is my house and what is my life

on the day of woe,

the savage day

that casts to the earth

in blinding fury

the delightfulness of the vine

and all my meditations. 

 

משהו מכאיב — עדמיאל קוסמן

מַשֶּׁהוּ מַכְאִיב לִי כָּאן, בַּצַּד, אַתָּה רוֹאֶה, קוֹנִי?
מַשֶּׁהוּ תָּפַח לִי, וְיָצָא לִי, וּבָלַט
לַחוּץ, מִתּוֹךְ הַהִרְהוּרִים, כְּמוֹ אֶצְבַּע
שֶׁנָּקְעָה, נַפְשִׁי הִצְמִיחָה
קֶרֶן אֲרֻכָּה שֶׁל יִסּוּרִים.

מַשֶּׁהוּ מַכְאִיב לִי כָּאן, בַּצַּד, אַתָּה רוֹאֶה, קוֹנִי?
הַבְּדִידוּת הִצְמִיחָה לִי זָוִית, בְּלִיטָה חַדָּה, עֲוִית,
כְּמוֹ נְחַשׁ-כַּפְתּוֹר אָרֹךְ, צוֹמַחַת וְיוֹצֵאת לִי
מִן הַגַּב אֶל פַּס-הָאוֹר, וּמִתְפַּתֶּלֶת עַל הַחֵיק
כְּמוֹ זָנָב שֶׁיֵּשׁ לִכְרֹת, מַהֵר, קוֹנִי, עַכְשָׁו,
כָּעֵת. לִגְזֹם וּלְסַלֵּק.

מַשֶּׁהוּ מַכְאִיב לִי כָּאן, בַּצַּד, אַתָּה רוֹאֶה, קוֹנִי?
הַבֶּגֶד לֹא מַסְתִּיר אֶת זֶה. וְהַתְּנוּעוֹת הַמְגֻשָּׁמוֹת שֶׁלִּי
רַק מוֹסִיפוֹת גִּחוּךְ. מַשֶּׁהוּ מַכְאִיב לִי. בָּרְחוֹבוֹת
בַּחוּץ הַחוֹגְגִים יוֹצְאִים בְּרִקּוּדִים וּבַשָּׂדוֹת אָבִיב
נִפְלָא. פְּרָחִים. נָשִׁים. מַשֶּׁהוּ מַכְאִיב לִי כָּאן, בַּצַּד,
קוֹנִי, הַאִם אֵינְךָ מַקְשִׁיב?

Something Hurts — Admiel Kosman

Something hurts me here, on my side, do You see, Creator?

Something swelled, protruded, and stuck

out, from my thoughts, like a finger

that’s sprained, my soul has grown

a long horn of suffering.

 

Something hurts me here, on my side, do You see, Creator?

Loneliness grew a sharp-cornered protrusion, a spasm,

like a long ornamental serpent, growing out

from my back to the ray of light and twisting around my chest

like a tail to be cut, quickly, Creator, now

this time. To clip and to dispose. 

 

Something hurts me here, on my side, do You see, Creator?

My clothing doesn’t hide it. And my clumsy movements

only make it more ridiculous. Something hurts me. In the streets

outside people celebrate in dance and in the fields is a spring

so wonderful. Flowers. Women. Something hurts me here, on my side. 

Creator, aren’t You listening?

 

בְּכָל‑לִבִּי, אֱמֶת, וּבְכָל‑מְאֹדִי

אֲהַבְתִּיךָ, וּבִגְלוּיִי וְסוֹדִי.

?שְׁמָךְ נֶגְדִּי – וְאֵיךְ אֵלֵךְ לְבַדִּי

וְהוּא דוֹדִי – וְאֵיךְ אֵשֵׁב יְחִידִי?

?וְהוּא נֵרִי – וְאֵיךְ יִדְעַךְ מְאוֹרִי 

וְאֵיךְ אֶצְעַן? – וְהוּא מִשְׁעָן בְּיָדִי! 

הֱקִלּוּנִי מְתִים, לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי

קְלוֹנִי עַל כְּבוֹד שִׁמְךָ כְבוֹדִי.

,מְקוֹר חַיַּי – אֲבָרֶכְךָ בְחַיָּי

וְזִמְרָתִי ­– אֲזַמֶּרְךָ בְעוֹדִי!

יהודה הלוי

 

With all my heart – O Truth – and all my might

I love You, with my limbs and with my mind. 

Your name is with me: Can I walk alone?

With it for lover, how can I be lorn?

With it for lamp, how can my light go dim?

How can I slip with it the stick

By which I stand?

They mock who do not understand: The shame

I bear because I bear Your name is pride to me.

Source of my life, I bless You while I live;

My Song, I sing to You while yet I breathe. 

Yehudah HaLevi

(translation, Raymond Scheindlin)

—————————

“The soul of man is the lamp of God.” [Proverbs 20:27]

‘For the (rational) soul of man is emanated from God’s light…; Thence it gives light to the animal and vegetative souls with its intelligence so that they see by its light.’ 

[Abraham ibn Ezra, commentary to Proverbs 20:27]

—————————

Religion itself is divided into two parts. One is the knowledge of the external duties of the body and its members; the other is the internal knowledge of the secret duties of the heart…the origins of the duties of the heart are intelligible, as I shall explain, with the help of God…These obligations are upon us constantly, everywhere and at all times, accompanying every hour, every minute, every situation, as long as our minds and souls are yet with us. This is like the case of the a servant ordered by his master to do two kinds of work. Indoors he must tend to the house, outdoors he must cultivate the soil at certain fixed times. If he misses the right time or is unable to do his work in the field, the obligation to work outdoors is cancelled. But he cannot be freed of his responsibilities indoors as long as he remains in the house and is serving his master. When he is undisturbed, the obligation to work indoors binds him constantly. [Bahya ibn Paquda, ‘Duties of the Heart’, Introduction]

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men…I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. 

[Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’, #139]

But perhaps those are just the hours when solitude grows; for its growth is as painful as boys’ growing up and as sad as the beginning of spring. But you should not let this unsettle you. For all that is required is solitude, great inner solitude. To go inside yourself and to encounter no one for hours — this you will have to be able to accomplish. To be alone, as you were alone as a child…And when we talk about solitude again, it becomes increasingly clear that this is at bottom not something one can either choose or forego. We are solitary. One can delude oneself, and act as if it were not so. That’s all. But how much better it is to acknowledge that we are solitary, and even make this our starting point. 

[Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’]

 

———————————————–

וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ 

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

[Genesis 32:25]

——-

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃ 

As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations…

[Numbers 23:9]

———

שָׁקַ֥דְתִּי וָאֶֽהְיֶ֑ה כְּ֝צִפּ֗וֹר בּוֹדֵ֥ד עַל־גָּֽג׃ 

I lie awake; I am like a lone bird upon a roof. 

[Psalms 102:8]

———-

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃  

Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall. 

[Lamentations 1:1]

 


 

יִשָּׁקֵ֙נִי֙ מִנְּשִׁיק֣וֹת פִּ֔יהוּ  — Give me of the kisses of Your mouth   

בּוֹא וּרְאֵה הֵיאַךְ הַקּוֹל יוֹצֵא, אֵצֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד לְפִי כֹּחוֹ, הַזְּקֵנִים לְפִי כֹּחָן, הַבַּחוּרִים לְפִי כֹּחָן, וְהַקְּטַנִּים לְפִי כֹּחָן, וְהַיּוֹנְקִים לְפִי כֹּחָן, וְהַנָּשִׁים לְפִי כֹּחָן, וְאַף משֶׁה לְפִי כֹּחוֹ

Come and see how God’s voice goes out to each Israelite, to each one according to that person’s particular ability. To the elderly in keeping with their ability, to the young in keeping with their ability, to the women in keeping with their ability, and even to Moses in keeping with his ability… [Shmot Rabba 5:9]

—————————-

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מַלְאָךְ הָיָה מוֹצִיא הַדִּבּוּר מִלִּפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר, וּמַחֲזִירוֹ עַל כָּלאֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ מְקַבֵּל אַתָּה עָלֶיךָ אֶת הַדִּבּוּר הַזֶּה, כָּךְ וְכָךְ דִּינִין יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ עֳנָשִׁין יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ גְּזֵרוֹת יֵשׁ בּוֹ, וְכָךְ מִצְווֹת, וְכָךְ קַלִּים וַחֲמוּרִים יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ מַתַּן שָׂכָר יֵשׁ בּוֹ, וְהָיָה אוֹמֵר לוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֵן, וְחוֹזֵר וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ מְקַבֵּל אַתְּ אֱלָהוּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר לוֹ, הֵן וָהֵן, מִיָּד הָיָה נוֹשְׁקוֹ עַל פִּיו

Rabbi Yohanan said: “An angel would carry forth each Word [each Commandment of the Ten Commandments] from before the Holy One of Blessing, and bring it about to every Israelite and say to her/him: ‘Do you accept upon yourself this Word? There are so and so many rules that pertain to it, so and so many penalties that pertain to it, so and so many decrees that pertain to it, so many religious duties, and so many lenient and stringent aspects that apply to it and so and so much reward [and punishment] that accrues in connection with it.’ And the Israelite would say, ‘Yes.’ And [then] the angel would go and say to him again, ‘Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One of Blessing?’ And the Israelite would say, ‘Yes, yes.’ Immediately, [the angel] would kiss him/her on the mouth…”

וְרַבָּנִין אָמְרִין, הַדִּבּוּר עַצְמוֹ הָיָה מְחַזֵּר עַל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ מְקַבְּלֵנִי אַתְּ עָלֶיךָ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ מִצְווֹת יֵשׁ בִּי, וְכָךְ דִּינִין יֵשׁ בִּי, כָּךְ וְכָךְ עֳנָשִׁין יֵשׁ בִּי, כָּךְ וְכָךְ גְּזֵרוֹת יֵשׁ בִּי, כָּךְ וְכָךְ מִצְווֹת יֵשׁ בִּי, כָּךְ וְכָךְ קַלִּין וַחֲמוּרִין יֵשׁ בִּי, כָּךְ וְכָךְ מַתַּן שָׂכָר יֵשׁ בִּי, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר, הֵן וָהֵן, מִיָּד הַדִּבּוּר נוֹשְׁקוֹ עַל פִּיו

Rabbis say: “It was the Word itself that made the rounds of the Israelites one by one, saying to each one, ‘Do you accept me upon yourself? There are so and so many rules that pertain to me, so and so many penalties that pertain to me, so and so many decrees that pertain to me, and so many religious duties, and so and so many lenient and stringent aspects, that apply to me, and so and so much reward [and punishment] that accrues in connection with me.’ And the Israelite would say, ‘Yes.’ Immediately the Word would kiss him on the mouth…” [Shir ha-Shirim Rabba 1:2]

Stay Safe. Stay Home. Stay Connnected. Shabbat Vayak’hel-Pekudei-haHodesh 5780 (2020)

The key figure in the building of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – whose construction details fill the last parashiyot of the book of Exodus is a man named Bezalel. Part general contractor, part artisan, part engineer, part community organizer, Bezalel is given the instructions conveyed by God to Moses and turns them into an actual structure. The only thing is, Moses doesn’t communicate all of the details to Bezalel, just the general outline. Bezalel has to figure it out as he goes.

And figure it out he does, mobilizing a large community of weavers, carpenters, shleppers, and more, to actually build the very mishkan that God showed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Without precise instructions, how does Bezalel know what to construct, and how? Rashi’s answer is that “Bezalel’s opinion was attuned with what Moses had been told on Sinai.” ‘Attuned’ is an interesting word. Aviva Zornberg calls it ‘artist’s intuition’ and suggests that “Bezalel simply knew God’s will and consummated it.”

It’s worth taking a step back to consider the mishkan’s purpose. The mishkan serves both as the community’s gathering place and as the space that contains the Divine Presence. It’s not just a building project, it’s holy space, the landscape in which sacred community happens. In Zornberg’s lovely formulation, the mishkan “is a symbolic world that mirrors God’s own creation of the world, a formal expression of a large imagining.” The large imagining is that God can be present in the world and that human community invites that Presence down to earth.

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We, the people of Israel, have been engaged in that sacred task from the very beginning. The mishkan is version one. The mikdash – the temple in Jerusalem was another version. The many synagogues we have collectively built in the two millennia since the destruction of the second Temple are yet another version. As R Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev teaches “the instruction was not to make the same form always. Only according to the spirit of prophecy of the time should we form here below the pattern of the furnishings.”

Today, in a strange and difficult moment, we have sought to build the form and version that we need right now. It’s of a virtual nature, entirely without walls, and yet it manages to gather us in sacred community and seems to summon up God’s loving presence in our midst in real time. The ‘spirit of prophecy of this time’ says that we need to keep our physical distance from one another and at same time stay spiritually and emotionally connected and attuned. Welcome to our new virtual mishkan. Its form may differ from its predecessors; its large imagining and essential purpose remain exactly the same.

V’asu li mikdash, says the Torah – ‘Make for Me a sanctuary’ v’shakhanti b’tokham – ‘and I will dwell in their midst.’ Our sanctuary is wherever each of us is; my hope and prayer is that God’s loving Presence will be there with us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dressing the ‘Part’ – Shabbat Tetzaveh/Zakhor 5780 (2020)

Commenting on the Torah’s detailed description of the fashion habits of the ancient priests, the Babylonian Talmud (Zevahim 17b) makes a startling claim: “If one serves as a priest without the full priestly raiment, one’s service is disqualified. At the time their raiment is upon them their priesthood is upon them. If their raiment is not upon them, their priesthood is not upon them.” Maimonides, codifying Talmudic law in 12th century Egypt, goes a step further, adding that an improperly dressed priest who attempts to engage in ritual practice becomes an ‘intruder’ (zar) subject to the death penalty! To be a proper priest, one must dress the part. 

The special haftarah for this Shabbat, known as Zakhor after the opening words of the special added Torah reading (maftir) and always read on the Sabbath preceding Purim, features a wardrobe malfunction that seems to make a similar point. The prophet Samuel, after calling King Saul to account for not fulfilling a divine commandment to wipe out the Amalekites, has his cloak torn by a desperate, grasping Saul – “And Samuel turned round to go, and Saul grasped the skirt of his cloak, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn away the kingship of Israel from you this day and given it to your fellowman, who is better than you. And, what’s more, Israel’s Eternal does not deceive and does not repent, for God is no human to repent.” [1 Samuel 15:27-29] Robert Alter spells out the symbolic significance for us. “Samuel, who never misses a cue to express his implacability toward Saul, immediately converts the tearing of the cloak into a dramatic symbol of Saul’s lost kingdom.” The cloak equals the kingship. To be a proper king, one must dress the part. 

So too Queen Esther. At the key turning point in the story, Esther appears before the king in order to expose Haman’s devious plan. Keep an eye on the clothing! “On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.” [Esther 5:1] Targum Sheni one of the ancient Aramaic translations of the book of Esther adds a few delicious details. “She then adorned herself with the jewelry that queens adorn themselves – she put on a royal garment, embroidered with the fine gold of Ophir, a fine silk dress encrusted with precious stones, and pearls which were brought from the land of Africa; then she place a fine gold crown upon her head and put shoes on her feet (made of) pure refined gold.” To be a proper queen, one must dress the part.

 

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[Esther before Ahasuerus, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1630]

 

Taken together, these Biblical examples seem to suggest a concept of leadership that strikes me as troubling to say the least. Can it really be that the clothes make the wo/man? Is leadership merely a matter of dressing for the ‘part’? Is a leader simply playing a ‘role’? Is leading only a question of presenting the right external forms?

Rabbi Moses Nahmanides and Aviva Zornberg to the rescue! Of the priest’s garments, Ramban writes that a kohen ‘should be dignified and glorious in dignified, glorious garments…made for Aaron to serve in them for the glory of God who dwells among them…the clothes must be fashioned with full intentionality and require kavvana…(those who make them) should understand what they are making”. In Zornberg’s words: “If the vestments are to have this authentically expressive power, inside and outside must match…”

In this season of elections in Israel, in the United States, in the world Zionist movement, seeking out an authentic match of inside and outside sounds exactly right to me. Esther, it turns out, it exactly the correct model. In Bible scholar Jon Levenson’s wise formulation, “we see Esther the beauty queen giving way to Esther the true queen”. So may it be for all of our leaders.

Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameah!

 

Mishkan = Sinai/Eden – Shabbat Terumah 5780 (2020)

“Sacred space constitutes itself following a rupture of levels which make possible the communication with the trans-world, transcendent realities. Whence the enormous importance of sacred space in the life of all peoples: because it is in such a space that man is able to communicate with the other world, the world of divine beings or ancestors. Every consecrated space represents an opening towards the beyond, towards the transcendent.” [Mircea Eliade, ‘Sacred Architecture and Symbolism’]

Parashat Terumah introduces us to a new kind of sacred space, one that is portable and replicable. The mishkan (Tabernacle) – its description and its construction – occupies the last third of the Book of Exodus. In what way did if provide ‘an opening towards the beyond’ to our ancestors? In what way might it offer such an ‘opening’ to us?

The Torah’s lengthy, and very detailed, description of the mishkan appears just after the Revelation at Sinai. Does that juxtaposition tell us something about the mishkan’s symbolism? Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman – Spain/Israel – 1194-1270) suggests as much. ‘Behold, they are holy, fit for a sanctuary for God’s Presence to dwell among them. And so, the first thing God commanded was the Tabernacle (mishkan), that there should be among them a house dedicated to God’s name…’ For Ramban, the mishkan is Sinai in miniature. You can take it with you!

 

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[El Greco ‘Mount Sinai’ c. 1570]

 

Or does the language of the Torah’s description of the mishkan’s construction, filled with the verbal vocabulary of Creation, tell us that the mishkan symbolizes the very first sacred space in human history, the Garden of Eden? My teacher and friend, Rabbi Shai Held, suggests that it does. Seeing the mishkan ‘as an island of Eden in a decidedly non-Edenic world’, Rabbi Held reads the mishkan’s symbolism this way: ‘The Eden-like mishkan holds out the possibility that greater degrees of wholeness are possible even in the midst of a (for now) irreparably broken world.’

 

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[Hieronymus Bosch ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ c. 1500]

 

So, which is it – Sinai or Eden? Towards which ‘transcendent realities’ does the mishkan (and its successors, the Temples in Jerusalem and the synagogue) offer an opening? My answer (no surprise) is both. The mishkan stood for the possibility of direct communication with Divinity echoing Sinai AND for the possibility of wholeness in a shattered world. So too the Temples in Jerusalem. And so too, I hope and pray, the synagogues in which we gather to pray, to learn, to be together. Both/and rather than either/or! Mishkan = Sinai/Eden yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom.