Coming in from the outside – Matot-Masei 5781

Isn’t it wonderful to be inside together!

Comfortable chairs! The beautiful sanctuary! Air conditioning!

It has been a long slog. Surprisingly, much of the last year already is starting to feel like a distant memory.  It was not long ago that I was rolling out of bed on Shabbat morning to go to shul in my family room.

As life continues to return to normal – at least for those of us blessed to live here in well-vaccinated San Jose, I wonder what from the pandemic will stay with us?

This morning’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, concludes the Book of Numbers. To make sure we do not forget, it reviews every single stop in the wilderness at which the Israelites have camped over the previous forty years. It is important to remember everything that has transpired before the Israelites are allowed to reach their home in the Promised Land.

As the parashah begins, however, there is one final piece of action that requires attention. 

At God’s instructions, the Israelites go to war against Midian.  This is the conclusion of a long, drawn-out engagement that began back when King Balak tried to get the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Now, finally, the conflict comes to an end with battle.

One thousand men from each of the twelve tribes are selected to go to war.  The Priest Pinchas joins them, equipped with the sacred vessels and the silver trumpets.

The Israelites achieve a great victory, devastating the Midianites and their towns,  slaughtering men, women, and children, and taking vast booty.

I do not want to focus on those parts of the story, however.  I would draw our attention to the return of the Israelites warriors to the community.

Moses instructs the soldiers:

You shall stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.

Numbers 31:19

On the seventh day, they wash their clothes and can then reenter the camp. 

Why is there such a long and drawn-out reentry into the camp?  If I was a soldier, the last thing I would want to do after returning home from war would be to wait outside for an extra week.  I would want to return to my family as quickly as possible.

The answer has to do with holiness and purity. After so much contact with death, the soldiers are all presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. If they return to the camp and mingle with the rest of the Israelites, they run the risk of passing along that corpse-contamination to others. The impurity could eventually spread all the way to the Tabernacle, which would then become unfit for God’s Presence.

And so, for the good of the entire nation, the 12,000 soldiers remain in quarantine outside the camp for one week, which is the length of time required to become pure again after a person has come into direct contact with a dead body.

Despite their overwhelming victory, I imagine these soldiers are still traumatized. 

What would it feel like to reenter the camp? They have gone through the trauma of war. These seven days of quarantine, of physical and spiritual cleansing, give them a chance to make a transition to normal life, to heal. Only then can they come home.

We have a sense of what that feels like. After sixteen months away, we are now back inside our sanctuary for the first time.

It has been a traumatic year for so many. Isolation, disruptions in school and work. Some of us have gotten sick. Some of us lost family and friends to Covid.

For the sake of keeping each other free from contagion, we have had to be physically isolated from one another.  For me, personally, it has been inconvenient. But I try not to forget about who has borne the brunt of this scourge. From increased rates of illness, to worse outcomes, to slower vaccination access, and increased unemployment – it is the same people who are always at greatest risk: the poor and marginalized.

Now here we are.

The Israelite soldiers returning from war partook in rituals to mark their return to the community. It is appropriate for us as well.

Birkat Shehecheyanu seems especially fitting at this moment. There are laws for when we are supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu. Basically, we recite it when we are doing something for the first time, or the first time in a long time.  Here are some traditional occasions for Shehecheyanu:

When we eat a “new fruit” which we have not eaten in at least a year. 

When we perform any mitzvah that has a fixed time and is not common, such as blowing the shofar or dwelling in the sukkah. This is why there is a shehecheyanu at the beginning of each holiday. There are those who recite shehecheyanu over a new article of clothes, but this really only applies to something special. If one buys a new house, one should recite Shehecheyanu. When we see a friend whom we have not seen in at least thirty days, we recite Shehecheyanu.

These are all traditional moments in life for reciting this prayer. What do they have in common? These are all moments of joy, whether we are talking about reaching a momentous occasion, seeing someone special to us, or performing a joyous mitzvah.

I suspect that we do not always think closely about the meaning of the words themselves when we recite it.

“Praised are You Eternal God, sovereign of the universe…”

  • Shehecheyanu – who has given us life. Simply being alive is a gift. We often forget that. 
  • V’kiy’manu – who has sustained us. This is about flourishing.  Not only do we have life, we have been blessed with the ability to flourish. The ability to do something new and exciting brings us above the level of mere living.
  • V’higianu lazman hazeh – And who has brought us to this moment. Judaism places more value on time than on space. All of our ritual mitzvot are oriented towards sanctifying time, recognizing the specialness of each moment.

Shehecheyanu, with its many opportunities for recitation, brings these three aspects of gratitude and awareness together. We acknowledge and praise God as the source of life, as the one who grants us the ability to flourish, and as the one ultimately responsible for enabling us to enjoy sacred moments.

This moment, when we are back in our sanctuary after sixteen months away, is an especially appropriate opportunity to say shehecheyanu. We have survived. While difficult, we have had opportunities to flourish. And while we have begun to enjoy life returning back to normal, these experiences have given us a new appreciation for how blessed we are in this, and every, moment. 

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Where is God? – Terumah 5775

Where is God?

I learned the answer when I went to Camp Gan Izzy, the Chabad Day Camp, in the summer before third grade.  Sing along if you know this one:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there,

Hashem is truly everywhere!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

So there is the answer.  God is everywhere.

Once, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, walked up to a group of scholars and asked them a simple question:  Where is the dwelling of God?”

They laughed at him.  “What a silly question!  Is not the whole world filled with God’s glory?!”

To which the Kotzker answered his own question:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

Two diametrically opposed answers to the question of where God is:

The first answer:  Everywhere.  God is big!  Nothing can contain God’s Presence.  God fills all of Creation, and then some!

The second answer:  God is small and lonely.  God is outside, knocking on the doors of our hearts, waiting to be invited in.

The first King of Israel is Saul.  When he loses God’s favor, Samuel the Prophet is called upon to anoint his replacement, and so God sends him to Beit Lechem to find a man named Jesse, one of whose sons will be anointed as the next King of Israel.

Samuel arrives, and sees Eliav.  Tall, strong, and handsome, he is Jesse’s eldest.  Samuel takes one look at him and says to himself, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.”

But God has other plans.  “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.  For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”  (I Samuel 16:7)

So Jesse brings up his next son, Avinadav.  “Nope,” says the Lord.  Shammah.  “Next!”  And so on, down the line.

After rejecting seven sons, Samuel asks him, “You got any more?”

Jesse looks at him, shrugs, and says, “Well, there is my youngest son.  He’s out tending the flock.”

“Well hurry up, man” Samuel urges, “bring him to me.”

Samuel takes one look at the kid and hears the Divine voice saying “This is the one.”  So Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel.

Where is God?

God peers into young David’s heart, and finds an opening.  We are told that after Samuel anointed him, “the spirt of the Lord gripped David from that day on.”  (I Samuel 16:13)

As this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, opens, Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and the Israelites are encamped below.  God instructs Moses to launch a capital campaign to raise money for a new building.  This is in the days before money, so they are going to have to collect raw materials:  gold, silver, copper, wool, fabric. precious woods, animal skins, and so on.  The gifts start pouring in.  The people respond so enthusiastically to the fundraising campaign, that Moses has to end it early – before the big donors can even come forward.  The first – and last – time in history that has happened.

They are going to use all of these materials to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle or Sanctuary, that the Israelites will take with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

This and next week’s Torah portions are filled with detailed descriptions of how to build all of the furniture, make the clothing, and construct the building.  At the end of the Book of Exodus, the final two portions will repeat much of these details as Moses passes on the instructions and the Israelites build it.

This Mishkan will enable them to install the Priests who will perform all of the special sacrifices and rituals, thereby maintaining the relationship between God and the Israelites in its proper balance.  Moses will confer with God in the inner precincts of the Mishkan.  It will also serve as a physical location for God’s Presence among the Israelites – a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night hovering to let the Israelites know that God is with them.

So where is God?

In the Mishkan, it would seem.

But, wait a second.  I thought God was everywhere, or waiting for hearts to open to be let in!  Now we are describing God’s Presence materializing in a physical location.

The truth is, God has no need whatsoever for a house.  God is way too big for that.  To suggest otherwise, that God’s Presence can somehow be contained in a physical space, is blasphemy bordering on idolatry.

It is we who need a Sanctuary.  Sefer Hachinukh teaches that it is the act of building the Mishkan which is transformative, not the building itself.  It is the journey, not the destination, which matters.

But why a Mishkan?  Why is it so important for the Israelites to build this thing in the first place?

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish Rabbi, connects the Mishkan to the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai.  The Revelation at Sinai was a glorious, indescribable moment.  The challenge for the Israelites after such a supremely spiritual experience is what to do the day after, and the day after that, for the rest of their lives.  Everything else will be a let down after Mt. Sinai.  Nachmanides notices that there are a number of similarities between the Torah’s description of the Mishkan and the Revelation at Sinai.

God speaks to Israel through Moses from inside the Holy of Holies just as God spoke to Israel through Moses on top of the mountain.

The Tablet of the Covenant that the Israelites carry with them in the Mishkan was given on Mt. Sinai as a symbol of the covenant that was struck there.

The cloud of smoke created by the incense offering in the Tabernacle recalls the cloud that covered Mt. Sinai.

Similarly, the fire on the altar symbolizes the fire that descended on Mt. Sinai from the heavens.

The building of the Mishkan is meant to capture the essence of what happened to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and enable them to take it with them on the road.  The Mishkan will serve as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai.

A Talmudic teaching (BT Sanhedrin 16b) takes it a step further.  The building of the Mishkan is not a one time project.  It is timeless.  We are to constantly build a Tabernacle in every generation.

So does that mean that we should launch another capital campaign tomorrow?  I think we might be able to get it to fit in the parking lot.

Just kidding.  Our tradition understands the Mishkan as a metaphor in and of itself.

God tells Moses, v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  These words appear in many, if not most synagogue, usually on donor plaques.  We have it in a beautiful mosaic right there in the foyer above the names of those who contributed significantly to the building of this sanctuary.

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  “Make for me a Tabernacle, and I will dwell in… ” – finish the sentence. It should say b’tokho, “in it.”  But it doesn’t.  It says b’tokham, “in them.”

“Make for me a Tabernacle so that I can dwell within them.”  The Israelites build this beautiful, expensive building, and now God is not going to even move in?!

This leads many commentators to suggest that each human being corresponds to the Mishkan.  The eternal command to build the Tabernacle is as relevant to us in this moment as it was to our ancestors in the wilderness thousands of years ago.

The purpose of building the Mishkan is to transform those who are building it.

The 19th century commentary, the Malbim, teaches that “each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

How do we transform ourselves into holy vessels worthy of God’s Presence?

The answer is quite straightforward: by doing mitzvot, we not only alter the world around us, we also transform our inner selves.  And then, God has a place in which to reside.

So where is God?

Everywhere? Waiting outside the door? Or in the mishkan?

The three answers merge.  The potential for God’s Presence to enter the mishkan of our hearts is with us at all time and in all places.  We return to the Kotzker Rebbe:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

But when we look inward, do we truly see ourselves in this way?  Are our hearts capable of becoming holy vessels that can house the Divine?  While these concepts are embraced in our tradition, notably by some of the Great Hassidic Masters, it seems to me that many of us struggle to see ourselves in this way, if we even consider it at all.

Our lives are so busy, our society and economy so material-driven, that the inner life is easily silenced and ignored.

Transforming the self into a holy vessel, a sanctuary for God, a Mishkan, requires kavannah, the intention to do so.

We approach an act with the mindset that its performance can open up our hearts, draw in sparks of holiness, and possibly even let God in.

We can introduce this kind of kavannah into our lives at any moment.  We just have to slow down, alter our perspective, and consider that our actions can have cosmic ripples beyond the physical world that we see around us.

The next time we give tzedakah, say a blessing before eating a meal, or study something, let us consider that what we are doing can transform our hearts in a profound way.

Right now, we are all here together in this physical sanctuary.  This is an opportune moment.  Let’s push the distractions aside, and make this an opportunity for holiness.  What better time and place is there than right here and right now?