By Rabbi Batshir Torchio
February 9, 2019 – 4th of Adar I, 5779
at Congregation B’nai Emunah
Last Springm I went to the Amalfi coast in Southern Italy for work – which may sound like a contradiction — because, really, work cannot be called work when it’s done on the Amalfi coast overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea while eating olives and sipping Limoncello throughout the day — and the night.
I had the great fortune of taking an extra week in Italy with my daughter Renée, and so we explored villages along the breathtaking coastline, pretending to be 1950s movies stars, our hair held back in scarves, screeching around narrow snaking paths on the outer edge of mountains in a 1980 4-speed Fiat. I exaggerate. But we were in a 1980 Fiat, and it was only 4-speed. With questionable breaks.
Renée and I took a few days in Rome after my work was completed. We wanted to see the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and visit the location of the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe, the Roman Ghetto.
My friends, if we were to compare and contrast houses of God (in Italy) – we would feast upon an astounding portfolio of eclectic real estate. Here we have the Tempio Maggiore di Roma, the largest synagogue in Italy, which contains grand scale stylistic elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture capped with the only square dome in the entire city. And here we have the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel with depictions of Moses on the north entrance wall, the contents of Revelation, nine panels outlining the stories of Genesis, the well-known portrait of the Last Judgement on the Altar Wall, and of course, the awesome hand of the Holy One reaching toward Adam’s fingertip to inspire him, b’tzelem Elohim, with, and in, the image of God.
Include in these earthly divine assets the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion – and to which the Torah devotes more ink than any other single subject. God directs Moses: “Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” This building project sits curiously between the receiving and acceptance of a covenantal relationship (“All that the Lord has spoken, we will faithfully do.” Ex. 24:7) and the building of an idol (Ex. 32:4) which certainly breaks that covenant as loudly, I imagine, as the sound of stone tablets smashed in anger against the base of a mountain. And yet, or, as a result of this ambiguous behavior, the placement of the Mishkan campaign becomes a response to the one-step-forward, two-steps-back adolescent development of a people testing the boundaries of covenant.
The great 19th century commentator and halakhist Rabbi Meir Simcha (1843-1926) stressed the point that upon Sinai – the site of an epoch event, the revelation of God, momentarily the holiest place on earth, as soon as revelation ended – animals resumed their grazing on that very spot. (Meshekh Chokhmah to Ex. 19:13) It is all too easy to get caught up in the mundane and either forget or dismiss the persistence of God’s presence in this world. Or to ignore God’s expectations of us. And so, God requests a dwelling place for God’s presence. The original Hebrew offers, not surprisingly, an additional translation of “v’shachanti b’tocham” which could read “I will dwell in them.” Not in the sanctuary, but in the people. (Ex 25:8) With this translation, God does not reside in the building, but in its builders.
The word Mishkan also reveals a nuanced perspective because it can mean not a permanent dwelling, but a nomadic glimmer – a moving presence. Imagining that God wishes to dwell within each of us, and knowing that the presence of God is nomadic as was the mishkan, how might we prepare our hearts in order to invite Divine company – a resting place for God that is more like a long term rental than a weekend Airbnb?
A Hassidic story tells of the Rebbe who approaches one of his followers during the confession on Yom Kippur. The congregant is striking his chest, softly wailing, confessing his shortcomings, and the Rebbe gently touches his shoulder and says, “Don’t knock so hard. Nobody’s home.”
Imagine that the covenant, brought down as a nexus between the heavenly and earthly realms which is sometimes as an imperceptible gentle knocking, and other times a thunderous banging at the threshold of your heart is God’s constant pursuit. And imagine pursuing God as persistently as God seeks you, by clearing a path into the inner sanctuary of your soul, which, the rabbis teach, is a replica of the holy of holies. What would be required for you to hold free a space – to build an internal mishkan – for God to inhabit? What is your practice for keeping that inner sanctum open year-round?
Holy monuments, basilicas, shrines, and all of their adornments are expressions of a kind of human devotion resourced by rote, out of fear perhaps, but ideally motivated by a desire to bring God down. Down to earth, and into our hearts.
The coastline that connects Positano and Amalfi draws a steady stream of travelers from around the world to experience its majestic edge. The natural world is filled with places where the human heart beats faster, the mind’s eye is challenged, and the spirit is elevated and humbled. Perhaps we need awesome places in order to feel awe.
But if you were to look within, at the landscape of your heart, what structures (falsehoods, stumbling blocks, narratives) need to be razed, and what foundation needs to be poured in order to make space for the immeasurable, limitless holy One?
Therein lies a sweet and perennial contradiction. These discernable internal and external rest stops for the Divine are capable of holding the infinite absolute silence that was heard at Sinai after the thunderous shofar blast, each of us according to our ability — separate and unified.
It is in the space of wondering about creating sacred spaces that I offer this blessing:
May we all find the resources needed to scaffold a tabernacle that is open to receiving revelation – ready to experience awe – surprised and delighted, and challenged in faith that the beating of our hearts is also a song of God.