Take your feelings and spiritual stirrings, says God in this week’s Torah portion. Take the awe you felt when salt water sprayed harmlessly against your face as you crossed the sea, and that taste of sudden joy. Take that song of thanks that rose, unbidden, to your lips. And pour them, like cement, into a house of set proportions. Channel them. Curb them. Transform them into a form of worship that is organized and stiff.
Why must our worship be so structured, so restrained? Why, asked generations of Jews, can’t we bring our sacrifices if and when we feel the need to do so, as spontaneous expressions of authentic guilt or joy?
And why, ask those of us who still live in the Tabernacle’s metaphorical shadow, where prayers replaced sacrifices and words replaced blood, must we recite the same words every day? Why can’t we simply pray when inspiration strikes?
This question lingered in my mind when I checked my Facebook Page this morning. These days, we all sail through social media under the winds of high disdain. “Unfriend,” they shriek. “Reject, cry ‘shame!'” We rise and fall with the waves that they engender, and sense their tide beneath our feet. And boy does it feel good to give over to this call of righteous indignation. Boy does it feel glorious to ride the waves of our convictions, dripping words like “deplorables” and “fools.”
Perhaps, I thought as I scrolled through one heated conversation after the other, these tides are exactly what the Tabernacle tries to limit. Perhaps it is the breakwater to their waves.
The Tabernacle stops us from giving over to our spontaneous emotions. And it invites us to see what happens when they no longer dye our world. Because at the very heart of the Tabernacle, right there between the Cherubim, at the place that is created when we restrain our own emotions – lies an empty, open space.
That space, that nothingness, is open. It doesn’t tell us anything, it simply is. And it reminds us that some questions stay unanswered, that some aspects of the world remain unknown.
When we allow our feelings and our convictions to sway us, we lose sight of this empty space. Carried by the strength of our understanding of reality, we think we hold all the answers, and dismiss the people who disagree with us as villains or deplorables, as libtards or as fools.
The Tabernacle limits our options when it comes to our relationship with God. But ironically, when it comes to our relationship with other people, it encourages us to open ourselves wide. By reminding us to leave some spaces open, free from the force of our emotions and convictions, it invites us to perceive the possibility that others people might have answers that we don’t.
The Tabernacle invites us to limit ourselves, and reign in our indignant inner tides. And in that newly carved-out empty space where our conviction isn’t, we can meet each other without prejudices. We can listen, truly listen, to each other’s voice.