Frederick L. Klein

Parashat Tetzvah – Palaces of Legos: Musing for a Time of Doubt

In last week’s Parashat Teruma, God held out a promise. If we simply build a home for God, God will enter our midst. “And you shall build for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among you” (Ex. 25:8). This is a promise of intimacy and protection, of connection and relationship.

In this week’s parashah, we are introduced to the commands of the seven-day initiation rites, where Moses is commanded to train Aaron and his sons in the administering of the sacrifices, and the objects of the Tabernacle are sanctified.  Thereafter, every day communal sacrifices would be offered — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Again, God promises us, “ I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I, Adonai, am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them—I,  Adonai” (Ex. 29:45-46).

If only this promise was so easy to achieve…

There once was a child who built a grand structure for his parents.  He labored day in and day out, working out every detail.  Finally, it was ready.  He turned to the parents and showed them the beautiful home he had built for them.   The parents beamed with pride, stating how beautiful the home was.  “I am so happy you like it, because from now on we will live here together!”

“My child, we love the house, but we cannot live there,” the parents responded.

“But why?” as tears welled up in his eyes.

“The house is beautiful for sure, my child, but it is not a real house.  It is a house of LegosHow will we fit?”

In our journeys throughout history, there is a promise made that if only we build a place for God, God will be with us.  However, there are times in history in which we may feel we are building houses of Legos. We want to build a house, we want our Divine parent to enter through the door, but does it really fit the needs of the Divine?  Are we as oblivious as a young child, making structures of plastic bricks, hoping that our bric-a-brac  structure will create the permanence and the eternality we desire?

The Torah in the elaborate description of the Tabernacle makes it all  seem so simple and obvious.  Set up for me a room to rest (the ark), give me a simple table with food (the table of showbread), and a lamp to provide light (the menorah).  This is all I need to be with you, and I will be with you throughout your sojourn in the desert, the deserts of life. It is almost as if the Torah offers us a recipe booklet: do A, B, and C and the Divine Presence would rest among us.

There are times in our personal and collective lives in which no matter how hard we try, we do not feel the presence of God in our lives. In truth, however, even in the idyllic desert of clouds of glory and pillars of fire the utopian vision of communion between heaven and earth was elusive.  The Edenic promise that the sanctuary offered quickly devolved on the eighth days of its own initiation, when disaster struck with the death of Aaron’s children Nadav and Avihu.  To remind us, on the last day of the initiation of the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu offer a ‘strange fire’ not authorized by God.  A fire descends from heaven and consumes them, turning a day planned for celebration into a day of tragedy (Lev. 8).  The reasons for this tragedy are debated, but ultimately the very idea that a perfected heavenly realm can reside within our fallible earthly realm is anything but obvious.  Despite the explicit nature in the text that every aspect of the building was done according to God’s command, despite the seven days of flawless initiation, it only took one mistake and the entire promise evaporated into thin air.   In truth, it feels as if the God’s presence within the camp remains tenuous at best.

Moses, the man of faith, the man who speaks to God face to face, never experiences this lack of intimacy.  The Talmud teaches a fascinating insight, commenting on the opening of the Amidah, the silent prayer.  In the opening blessing, God is invoked as ha’el hagadol hagibbor vehanora, the Great, the Mighty, and the Awesome, echoing Moses’s description of God in Deuteronomy 10:17.[1]   For the spiritual leader on the mountaintop, the world makes perfect sense, with the Divine presence and power permeating all levels of existence.  At peak moments in our lives, we may even be able to say these words with perfect faith, but it is interesting that the Talmud invokes other prophets who could not.

Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17).

Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary, where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18).

Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children, where is His might? Therefore, he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).[2]

Jeremiah lived during a time of the destruction of the Temple, war and upheaval.  Despite his prophetic character, what he saw was a world devoid of God’s greatness; he thus could not say these words with any conviction, any authenticity. He still invoked God, but left out the word, Nora, awesome.  If people had experienced God’s awesomeness, they could never have destroyed God’s Temple.

Daniel, living in the exile of Babylonia, similarly saw the suffering of the Jewish people, and thus took out the word gibbor, mighty.  A mighty God does not allow the Jewish people to suffer in the way they do.

In essence, the Talmud is making a radical claim.  By placing doubt in the minds of the prophets, they give us the permission to doubt as well.  Doubt is not something outside the dynamics of faith, but quite the contrary.  The very fact that there is doubt in the first place testifies to the power of the promise and vision to move the prophets to prophecy in the first place.  That is the very same impulse which motivates us to build a Tabernacle in this transitory world, in the middle of the desert, because we hold out the promise that the Divine can indeed reside in this flawed, impermanent, and unpredictable world.

The Talmud continues to argue that the Anshei Beit Kenesset HaGedolah, the Members of the Great Assembly (the religious leadership during the return from Babylonia) reinstated the full invocation of God’s name, through reinterpreting the meaning of each of the terms.  To be mighty or powerful does not mean to vanquish and obliterate the enemy, but rather to control one’s internal emotional life and exercise patience.  To be slow to anger is itself a statement of enormous power.  Similarly, the very fact the Jews survived against all odds is proof in itself of God’s providential design, of God’s ‘awesomeness’.  Other nations rise and fall, but the Jewish people continue to survive.   Thus.  not to punish iniquity and the fact that the Jews are not destroyed for these leaders are paradoxically proof of God’s design!

In truth, to find moments of faith during times of uncertainty is a remarkable capacity, and to intuit light in the darkness has always been a gift of the Jewish people.  The Talmud remarks that the Members of the Great Assembly  restored God’s place in the world because of their reinterpretations as to how to look at the world around then, to reconceive the historical moment, and this is why the Talmud states they are called ‘great’.  To remain in perpetual doubt, failing to see the grace of God anywhere, is ultimately destructive to the religious life, which is grounded in the dynamics of hope.  We would have never survived if not for this exegetical- and psychological- move.

And yet, the Talmud does not conclude on that note.  The Talmud asks if all of this is true, how were Jeremiah and Daniel able to deny some of God’s attributes as annunciated by Moses.  The answer of the Talmud is telling:

Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful and hates a lie. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him.[3]

This concluding remark is revealing, even if many years later the Members of the Great Assembly had a larger perspective.  At the moment of crisis and destruction, to utter with one’s lips that which does not reside in the heart is hypocrisy.   In pastoral care, we meet the patient where they are, and if they are suffering, we do not necessarily provide ‘perspectives. Like the prophets at a moment of tragedy, we allow those we see to share their feelings, whatever those feelings may be, and even if we do not see things in the same way.

The Jewish people suffered a deep and traumatic wound on October 7, followed by a period of war and uncertainty.  We have seen great acts of faith, sacrifice, and unity.  We have heard stories of heroism, and like the Members of the Great Assembly, we seek blessings in the darkness, telling ourselves that we have been unified like never before.

We know the evilness that we experienced on October 7 must never happen again.  This was the promise of the State of Israel, and the vow we made following the Holocaust.  And yet, we do not yet know how this story ends.  Perhaps we feel things that are conflicting with the narrative of what we think we should believe or should feel.  Perhaps while we seek for faith, we also feel like the world seems broken, like God and God’s purposes remain hidden from us.  If we only knew what to do, how to respond, how to restore the universe to the balance God had intended! How to bring healing and peace to the world.  The Tabernacle is often seen as a microcosm of the world, and if so and if we are honest, there are times when the world feels devoid of the Divine presence.

If you feel these things, you are no different than the prophets of old. Whatever you are feeling right now is legitimate.  Our parshiyot provide a promise, a recipe as it were, to bring God’s presence into this world.  Their history- and our history- teach that there is a gap between the ideal and the real, the hope and reality.  And thus, we may feel we are in the dark, groping for the meaning we hope.  At the same time, we need to hold tight to our parshiyot.  Building the tabernacle was not a one-time event, but an ongoing practice.  In every generation, even in times when we believe we are acting blind, we take a leap of faith, believing in the promise:

Make for me an appropriate Tabernacle

Make for me a holy world

And ultimately I will dwell within all of you.

May we be inspired by this vision, even in the darkest of times.

Shabbat shalom

[1] See B.T. Megillah 25a

[2] B.T. Yoma 69b with some interpolations by Steinsaltz.

[3] BT Yoma 69b

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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