Pekudei: Creating sacred space and creating community requires holding each other accountable

Aside

 

The description of the building of the Tabernacle continues and with great detail we learn about the physical mishkan, about the materials that went into creating it, about the cost to the community who freely gave of their wealth and skill, about how the process of creating it became a community project and one which created community as much as the building itself.  Here in Pekudei we have the equivalent of a modern AGM – the accounts are presented in detail so that everyone can see what went on, and no one could hide behind status or mystique. The sidra actually begins “These are the records (Pekudei) of the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding”

            The building of the Tabernacle was a direct result of the building of the golden calf.  After Aaron had given in to the request to build a god figure that the people could see, once Moses had disappeared into the top of the mountain and didn’t seem to be coming back, God had reluctantly realised that the people needed more than blind trust, more than simple faith – they needed something to hold on to.  So, having attempted to build a god-figure that they could see, God moved them on to constructing a building for the God they could not see – and than of course gave the added twist that this building would not in fact be the dwelling place of God – if they built it said God, then God would dwell among THEM.

            The people were very busy building the mishkan. Though God had provided the blueprint, and had engaged the architect and builders so to speak in Bezalel and Ohaliav, the fact remained that there was a lot more to do, and we are told repeatedly in biblical narrative and in the midrash that ALL the people were involved – both in terms of giving to the mishkan and in terms of supervising or of being accountable to.

            The purpose of building the structure is a little ambiguous – clearly it was needed for the people to have some tangible and existing sign that God was among them, but the greater agenda seems to have been that not only did the people need a sense of the proximity of God, they needed too to feel the support of their companions.  The building of the mishkan was in reality the way to build the community – its values, its processes, its vision.  It also gave the people a much needed task – subsisting in the desert waiting to go into battle in some nebulous future cannot have been easy for them, and must have sapped morale and caused them to question the meaning of their existence.  It is as if God responded to the anxiety of the people when they thought that Moses had gone and they were leaderless by giving them a commission to undertake – in effect God decided to keep the people busy, as they would then not get into the sort of trouble they did around the Golden Calf. Being busy meant they would also stop complaining – a habit they seemed to have polished into an art form already.  So God gave them a task and they formed themselves into a committee and threw themselves into the job.  When the mishkan was completed, and they were busy giving their accounts in sidra Pekudei, one commentator tells us that God said “Woe is Me, for now they will turn their attention away from creativity and working together, and once more lean towards destruction and separation.!

            The writer of that insight certainly understood how the Jewish community can behave – pulling together in times of crisis or shared values, bickering and pulling apart at other times.

                       So, if the purpose of the building was really to create a way of behaving together, so as to build the people into a community, the end of the project must have been a critical time for the Israelites.  I think that that is hinted at in the way the narrative develops, for the other major theme of Pekudei is the robes of the priesthood, and the mechanisms for developing that whole priestly structure, and this of course will lead us into the themes that will be preoccupying us over the next weeks of Torah readings – Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is largely about the inner workings of the cohanim, the priestly leadership who will have responsibility for the worship of the people.

            But  before we move on to the priesthood, let’s stay for a while with the twin theme of building and of community, what is known in the trade as minyan and binyan. 

We have always been a travelling people.  We have built buildings and then left them behind. What is of prime importance to our people isn’t the place we live or worship in, but what we do in it, not the material structure but the structure of our community. That said, the space in which we come together as a community – our Beit Knesset, the house of meeting which also acts traditionally as Beit Midrash – house of study, and Beit Tefillah – house of prayer, is hugely important for us.  It is the space in which we become a kehilla, the area where we function as part of the Jewish community.  So while rabbinic priority is always on minyan – community, rather than binyan – building, and while we attach more importance to a group of people creating a cemetery and a school before they create a synagogue – and indeed why we teach that any clean and respectable room can function as a prayer hall – it doesn’t have be dedicated or specially consecrated to make it ‘holy’ – we do care very much for our religious buildings.  There is a reason for this, and it can be traced to the building of the mishkan – we learn that how we create and treat sacred space is reflected in how we create and treat each other as people with whom we have a profound bond of covenant.

While the mishkan was the dwelling place of God, it is no accident I think that modern Hebrew has taken the root word shachen and turned it into the word for the local community. In English we live in suburbs – places less than the more important city around which we are arranged, but in Hebrew we live in sh’chen’ut – in a neighbourhood, a place of community.

There is a connection between our sacred space and our community –  a connection so deep and intense that we can create one by creating the other.  Sometimes we see this in the bonds we have with old synagogue buildings – it seems to me that every week there is a letter in the Jewish press about an old – sometimes even abandoned – synagogue needing to be saved for the community.  Sometimes we see the connection in the processes – just as community was built as mishkan was built, so we generate our community and deepen it by involving ourselves in the continuing development of our shared building. 

            This is an ongoing movement for us.  Our building becomes emblematic of our inner belief system, it both shapes us and must be shaped by us.  Sometimes that is difficult and we can get bogged down in detail – the sort of detail that Pekudei is also full of – how much money, how many hooks or nails, who paid for what, where the money went, who said it should…. That detail is important because it shows that all decisions made for the community must be transparent and open to all, it shows that no-one is above accounting for their actions, it shows too that leadership – in this case of the craftsmen Bezalel and Ohaliav – must be given to people who are capable and who understand more than just the details – Bezalel is described as having chochma, bina and da’at – not as being a chabad hasid, but as having wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in other words the widest possible sensitivity to information and how it is used.  He must have been good at the details, but he was good too at the overall vision of what was to be created. And importantly, he helped the community come together in order to create both binyan and minyan.

 

Parashat Vayakhel: we create and live in holy time

The opening three verses of Vayakhel deals with the observance of Shabbat: “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: these are the things which God has commanded that you do. Six days shall you labour, and the seventh day shall be holy, a Sabbath unto the Eternal; whoever does work on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day.  Rashi reminds us that the verse order, where the law of Shabbat precedes the laws about the building of the Mishkan, teaches that even the building of the Sanctuary is less important than observing Shabbat.  The Sabbath, the day for remembering God’s creation, for resting from work, is so important that even the holy work of building this place must stop for it.

 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of Shabbat as being ‘a palace in time’. He sees the entwining of the biblical texts on Shabbat and the Mishkan, and understands that sacralising time is far more important than sanctifying space. The pattern of six days of work which are followed by the Shabbat when all labour should be avoided, is a deliberate resonance with the Creation of the world in Genesis. Shabbat is the culmination of the Creation, a weekly prompt to us of our purpose in the world.  Heschel reminds us that “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

The sanctification of time rather than place is the real innovation in the worship of the incorporeal and transcendent God. Along with its lack of physical dimension, time is universal, it belongs to everyone. Unlike buildings or land, no one can claim that the day belongs to them alone, no one can claim ownership of time. And the sanctification of time does something else. As Heschel wrote Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time... There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Each of us is able to control how we use our own time, each of us has the same resource measured in minutes, hours, days, weeks, seasons. If we choose to pay attention to how we use our time in this world, if we deliberately use our time to work for the purpose of making our world a more sacred place, then we will have understood the message in Vayakhel.  

Heschel reminds us that the verb ‘kadesh’ meaning to sanctify or to separate out for a distinct purpose is first used at the end of the story of Creation, when God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy”, a statement we recite at kiddush. There is no other reference to anything else in creation being made holy. Not the world, not people, not any special place. At the beginning of our history holiness was to be found in time. We became a holy people much much later, at the theophany at Sinai. And places only became holy with the building of the Mishkan, the sanctuary whose completion we read about this week.

 Every hour we have is unique, filled with possibility, endlessly precious, and potentially holy. Once we have sacred buildings it is easy to forget that actually we live in sacred time. But we do; and ultimately each of us uses our own time, making choices about how we spend it, how we allow its use to impact upon us.

 Time is more sacred than space. And all of us live in  time that is limited yet infinitely possible.  As we come towards the end of the book of Exodus, leave behind the stories that begin in slavery and move into the wealth of possibilities that is the desert experience, the constraints of place need no longer oppress us – we inhabit holy time.

Parashat Tetzaveh: Do clothes really make us who we are?

In this sidra, Moses is told toBring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to Me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Eleazer and Itamar, Aaron’s sons.  And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendour and for beauty.  And you shall speak to all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.  And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a tunic of chequer work, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.”(Exodus 28:2ff)

What is the connection between the sacred garments and the work of the priest? Why should the sacred garments be for splendour and beauty? And why should they be made by people who are especially wise?

Rav Kook reminds us that clothing has more than a utilitarian function, to protect us from the weather and to encase our fragile skin in more hardy materials. While animals have fur and feathers for such purposes, we humans are different, we are more vulnerable and have to create an outer layer for defence.  But that is not our only difference – in creating clothes we can also affect how we feel about ourselves and others, clothes can influence our attitudes and our feelings, alter our state of mind, signal something important to ourselves and to others. Essentially clothes can be powerful drivers of our sense of self. It may be simple such as the wearing of a uniform or professional outfit which gives us confidence and standing, it may be bridal wear or mourning outfits signifying change of status or emotional state. Rav Kook sees this function of clothing as having great theological and  ethical value. “It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.” (Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 354)

When God sends Adam and Eve out from the Garden of Eden to the exposed world outside, the first thing God did was to make them clothes – garments made of skin to replace the ones they had made themselves of fig leaves to cover their newly realised nakedness (gen 3). It is an act of protection and of love, and similarly to when God marks Cain in order to safeguard him as he wanders the world, it is also a reminder of an awareness of God, that we are more than we appear to be, that we have a spiritual hinterland,  a layer of security beyond the material.

Jewish tradition speaks of Hiddur Mitzvah – a concept derived from the verse in Exodus at the Song of the Sea  (15:2) “This is my God and I will glorify him”. The Midrash tells us that since it is not really possible to add glory to God, this must really mean that we glorify God by the way we perform the mitzvot – and from this develops the art of beautiful ritual artefacts – sifrei torah covers, tallitot, Shabbat candlesticks, Seder plates etc.  So clearly the notion of Aaron and his sons wearing splendid and beautiful clothes for the priestly function could be seen as part of this idea. And yet, it seems to me that more is being spoken of in the special clothes for priestly work.  Aaron’s clothing sanctifies him. It is not just the wearing of respectfully clean and tidy clothing that is happening here, the clothes literally change the person in some way.

The Talmud makes this idea of clothing changing our perceptions even more explicit “. Said R. Abbahu in R. Johanan’s name, and some derive ultimately [the teaching] from R. Eleazar the son of R.Simeon:  “Because Scripture says “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute: When wearing their [appointed] garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood. (Zevachim 17b).

So the Talmudic rabbis understood that the garments invest them with the priesthood – and removing their priestly clothing will separate them from the priesthood – it is a startling assertion if true, but I think something else is really meant here.  The priestly garments did not make the priesthood, nor did they remove it but they helped Aaron and the priests to feel like they were priests, they integrated the internal reality with the external appearance, and for something so important as ministering before God this was of critical importance.

I once heard of a condition called “Bishop’s syndrome” – I have no idea if it is really there in the medical textbooks, but essentially it describes the sense of disbelief when someone climbs high in the clerical hierarchy and fears that somehow they are not deserving of this status or title. It is characterised by the anxious thought that “one day they will find out I am not a proper bishop”. I guess it could be called “head teacher’s syndrome” or you could insert any role which requires competence and responsibility.   To wear the ‘uniform’ can help ‘create’ the persona, both for the person wearing it and for the person who sees it, and we see this most powerfully today in the medical white coat, or the hi-vis jackets.

I experience this phenomenon when I wrap myself in tallit. Not only am I delineating time for prayer and focus on meaning, I am delineating space around myself, and signalling to myself and to others that I am becoming my more prayerful self.  The fact that I am wearing the uniform of the mitzvot, that I am enwrapped and made rapt in the warmth of prayer, allowing myself to immerse in the sea of prayer and conversation with God helps me in both the preparation and the act.  The beauty of my tallit, the knowledge that it was made with love and mindfulness, all help to make this a special time.  

I also experience this phenomenon when sitting in shul and seeing all the people around me wearing tallit, people who walk in to the room as ordinary Jews somehow become the people of Israel, flocking together, shawls draped over shoulders, creating a sea of prayer – and the opposite occurs when they take off their tallitot and return to the world of the ordinary.

Aaron and his sons are to wear special garments in order to minister before God. The clothes help them cross the boundary from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They help the people to see them not as frail human beings but as priests of God. The fact that the clothes are beautiful, that they are made with mindfulness all help to foster the sense of transformation.

We see clothes today as signifiers often of role or of status – but rarely do we think of them as the agents of change. And rarely do we recognise the power of clothing to direct our thinking, so when we are impressed by someone in expensive or designer wear we may forget that the person inside is not the clothing. The person inside is special, is a child of God, is unique and has gifts and talents, feelings and thoughts –the clothing is an outer layer designed for protection and action. The body is the clothing of the soul – and our tradition reminds us that when the clothing of our material self wears out and is respectfully disposed of, the soul will continue with God.