It is impossible to count the number of moments this past week where I have seen the creation of virtual communities online in response to the Covid-19 closures and shutdowns all over the world. The multiple musical sing-alongs in apartment complexes, the free dance and yoga classes, opera from the Met in NYC, rabbis teaching, families sharing, children learning, organizations meeting, and religious services streaming.
These convenings have been created with the qualities with which the Torah imagines a sanctuary is built: nediv lev and chacham lev – generous and wise hearted people, bringing their gifts to the larger effort of making a sanctuary, and through which they can feel the divine presence. While we may have been practicing social distancing we have not been engaged in spiritual distancing.
With this week’s double Torah portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei, we come to the end of the book of Exodus, as well as the end of the process of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), crafting the tools, and weaving and creating the detailed clothing for the priests and the Kohen Gadol (The High Priest).
The Exodus text echoes the concluding words of the mythic tale of creation: “And Moses saw all the tasks, and behold, they had done it as God had commanded them (39:43), which sounds very much like, “And God saw all that God had done, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31); thereby making a striking connection between divine and human creativity.
The precise details are simultaneously mind numbing and intense, physical and spiritual manifestations both of God’s presence and the people’s faith. Over the last five weeks the Israelites have brought their willing hearts, their wisdom, skills, talents, and possessions to the creation of a sanctuary that for all intent and purpose, is not literally for God.
The text is clear that God will dwell “among the people,” so why did the people need this sanctuary? This generation experienced and witnessed God’s work in the world. The miracles that Exodus relates, of the ten plagues, a parting sea, survival in the treacherous desert conditions, and ultimately the giving and receiving of the law amidst thunder and lightning, are all symbolic of Divine power shared with the Israelites. What could a portable sanctuary truly add to their faith, and their perception of God’s presence?
Perhaps it is as simple and immediate as the need to transform a miracle based association with God into a more personal spiritual connection. This possibility is evidenced by the entire process of building the mishkan. Everyone is invited to contribute because everyone is potentially impacted by the power of ritual and communal convocation.
How similar to this week’s activities online. The platforms that only a short time ago we might have derided for their manner of disconnect that “removes” people from their reality, that has kids looking at screens instead of one another – we now can see also can create intimacy where there would be none. A couple in my congregation decided they could not wait one more minute to marry, and a picture I posted to social media after the little ceremony I conducted at the County Clerk’s office of us bumping elbows and wearing gloves, invited more “likes” in a group of clergy responding to the crisis than I have ever seen in response to something I posted. It was as if the couple had 750 people at their wedding instead of just the three of us and a witness.
Something intimate is created by the acts of generosity of the Israelites. The command was to build the Tabernacle, and God would come to dwell among the people. But a better rendering of the command might be, “build me a sanctuary, such that I will come to dwell.”
The mikdashim – the small sanctuaries – built this week online enabling learning, praying, laughing, remembering, sharing, and planning invited the Divine to dwell among the people. I would posit that our efforts have been rewarded, even while none of us would have wished for this crisis.
The mythic story of the creation of the world in Genesis might also be explained by a divine instinct to want for humanity to experience a connection with godly creativity, such that we might experience God’s presence as we make our way in the world. The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) offered the insight that the mishkan was to be a place of testimony. It should be a place where people would come to testify of the experience of God. Once the people gave of themselves to build the sanctuary, thereby acting in the image of God through their creative building, (likened to God creating the world), the root of testimony could grow in their hearts. That is when God comes to dwell among the people.
As I watched my children in their online learning with their classmates and teachers through Zoom, I was in awe of the teachers’ energy and delight engaging with their students even in such a platform. The kids were so happy to see one another, the teachers were nimble and creative in their lesson plans, and it was clear that something sacred was happening between the participants.
Upon the completion of the mishkan Moses blessed the people: “vayevarech otam Moshe” (39:37), much like God blessed the Sabbath day upon the completion of creation – “vayevarech Elohim et yom ha’shevii” (Gen. 2:3). The exact words of these two blessings are not recorded in the Torah, only the statement that they occurred. But Midrash Tanhuma (Pekudei 11:9) offers the imagined words of Moses to be: “May God’s presence take root in the work of your hands.”
This isn’t necessarily a blessing unique to the moment in which we find ourselves, as we could offer this blessing at any time we engage with others. But as we are unable to be together in typically physical ways, where we might feel such a blessing, we are called to derive it virtually but in real time.
Jewish practice sanctifies time over space. When we feel God’s presence (if we do), it is not usually because of a physical structure in which we find ourselves. It is more likely that we have opened to the possibility of authentic connection, and/or that we have contributed something of ourselves to make it happen. When we experience those moments, the details only matter as they lend color to the story. Yet when we recall those moments, we point to all the conditions that made it possible to experience the sacred – and then we feel blessed.
May the coming weeks continue to bring forth gatherings that create community, thereby recording the sacred experience of doing so in our hearts and minds forever.