Vayak’hel: Hearing Hashem

The readings for this week are Vayak’hel and Pekudei.  They’re the last parshot in Exodus.

Here’s the highlights: Moses assembles everyone and reminds them about observing Shabbat. He relays HaShem’s instructions about the making of the Mishkan (the holy ark), which we’ve been hearing for several parshot (with a break for the Golden Calf). The Israelites donate everything that is asked of them, including gold, silver, wool, oil, herbs, wood, and precious gems. They give until Moses has to tell them to stop. A team of artisans makes the container for the Mishkan and the Mishkan itself. There’s a table for the Showbread, a Menorah, altars for incense and offerings, and the priestly garments. Moses initiates Aaron and his four sons into the priesthood. A cloud appears over the Mishkan, which symbolizes that HaShem has come to dwell among the Israelites.

The Mishkan is the core of the Tent of Meeting, the place we are to gather to hear the words of HaShem.

The vessel is built as a channel for the divine, to hold the holy presence in space-time. The word Mishkan in Hebrew derives from the word “from” and the root letters for Shekhinah, the feminine principle of the divine.

The Mishkan is like a lightening rod for holy energy, a conductor for the holy spark. It’s a conduit to the ineffable. We’re told HaShem will speak from the space between the faces of two cherubim on the Mishkan’s top. Their wings make a crown, and their faces look both at one another and down. So the voice of HaShem is the voice that comes from confronting both the face of self, and the face of The Other, in the core of the holiest of holy spaces.

The head artist is announced. His name is Bezalel, which in Hebrew means “in the shadow or protection of God.” We’re told he is imbued with the spirit of HaShem, with wisdom, insight, knowledge, and a talent for craftsmanship. There’s no committee, no politics. Moses is told, this is the guy. He’s young. 13. He has the light around him.

Just as the ark holding our Torah is a Mishkan, so TBI is our Tent of Meeting. We had no single Bezalel. It’s been a collective creative process, with emphasis on process. Committees, community meetings, fiscal campaigns, budgeting, continual reality checks and choices. Instead of ceaseless giving, many of our wallets have needed to be pried open. But through some persistent, miraculous, inelegant process, we have created this building, this space, and this community to share a connection with the divine.

There’s a moment in any creative process when things feel hopeless. That achingly big gap between vision and actualization. Like when you buy something, say from IKEA, but don’t notice those nasty three letters on the sign: RTA, as in, ready to assemble. As seen in the mind’s eye, your mishkan of a desk or dresser is perfect. A symmetrical, completed thing of beauty. But when there’s a jumble of pieces spread all over the floor, and you’re holding some impossibly wrapped screws, and one tiny, little Allen wrench, it’s easy to feel exhausted before you’ve begun.

You don’t yet see the Mishkan. Possibly a Bezalel sees it, but the rest of us are off dying wool, smelting copper, chopping wood, or toting water. To us the Mishkan might seem like part of a mythic dream, like in Indiana Jones’ cinematic quest to recover it: worth inspiring action, but hard to comprehend its true holy purpose.

But eventually there’s a moment when you begin to feel hope. When things start to take form, and you can see how everything fits together. That there’s a plan, and you’re part of it, and it’s a part of you.

That can happen when we come here to share stories and prayers. Words that flow all the way from Genesis. Words we sing and say together, and in silence. Each week building the Mishkan anew. One that we bear witness to, and that becomes the channel for our own world to come.

Our job is to show up. Sometimes we’re blinded and deafened, as at Sinai, and we beg for an interlocutor. But that distancing just makes it easier to reject what we don’t want to hear. To avoid what seems too hard.

As any of the prophets will tell you, we are a nation of fickle recidivists. Given half a chance, we’ll stray from the path of goodness. HaShem spoke to us directly, and we couldn’t even wait 40 days for Moses to descend Sinai before we blew it and melted our remaining gold into an idol.

 Exodus 35:1-40:38

Someone once asked me what I believed in. At the time I answered “synchronicity.” That’s still true. But I’ve reframed my metaphors and looked behind the curtain a little. Now I’d say, I believe we’re in an active conversation with the unseen. And if we’re not, we should be.

There was this great cartoon in the paper a few weeks ago. The teenaged boy is sprawled on the couch. His mother’s walking around him, giving advice. The thought balloon over his head reads, Someday I’m going to have to ask her what she’s been saying all these years.

That’s the opposite of what the Mishkan is for. Like Sinai, it’s a supreme gift that’s also a mandate for us to participate in a process of active listening. If we’d been truly listening at Sinai could we really have built a Golden Calf?

When I think of the ways HaShem speaks to us in the Torah, whether it’s directly at Sinai, through Moses, or from between the cherubim, I’m struck by the range. We are commanded (Do this or you’ll die), invited (Accept me and you’ll be blessed), reminded (I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt), and bribed (with the land I promised your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).

HaShem needs so many voices. If only we had more or better ears!

In fact, I think we do. I think we hear not only through our ears, but through our hearts, our eyes, our laughter, and our tears. And through that deep sense of knowing we get when we feel a wisp of the divine presence inside us. How it feels when the Shekhinah comes to visit our inner Mishkan. Whether that’s part of a creative process or to give comfort in times of trouble.

My name for that knowing, that space, is probably my single favorite name for HaShem: HaMakom. It means The Place. It comes from Vayetze, the parshah where Jacob dreams of the angels on the ladder.  He awakes and says God was in this place and I did not know. That’s how I most relate to HaShem.

In the same way that we set a place for Elijah at Passover, I revel in knowing that there’s a place inside each of us that’s set and ready for the Shekhinah to visit. A fully-assembled, factory-equipped mishkan. Inside me and inside you. Now and always.

And if we are particularly quiet, or blessed, or sincerely humble enough, perhaps we can feel the divine presence in that inner Mishkan. Perhaps we’ll remember HaShem is always in this place. And that that we are always in HaMakom. That’s what living in gratitude is really about.

There was a great line from my Hebrew homework last month. We are made in HaShem’s image so we will always seek HaShem. We’re all on an eternal quest for an inner sense of rightness. For a world in harmony and balance at the deepest, most profound, and purest level of being: how prayer feels when it is answered.

That’s part of what these Mishkan parshot tell us: Keep coming; keep asking; keep listening.

I love the idea that the Mishkan travels with us all the years in the wilderness. It’s portable, and literally a portal. An outer HaMakom where we hear HaShem resonate in our inner one. That’s the level of openness and receptivity that’s being asked of us.

The road that we travel carrying the Mishkan leads through many difficult lands. Like the ferocious tribe of Amalek that attacked the Isrealites, killing stragglers and becoming an iconic name for all future evils–from the Inquisition to the Holocaust–we are beset by various forms of nemesis. Confusion, fear, doubt, ennui, pain, loneliness, illness. All the inner Amaleks we create for ourselves, and all those we encounter and must learn from because we’re here being human, living and trying to make some spiritual progress.

The wilderness is a tough place in which to find direction. Sometimes it’s hard even to glimpse the direction you want to go. Or the choices that you make may lead you in the wrong direction entirely.

I’d never have prayed for some of the issues in my own private wilderness, like the end of a relationship or a bad back. But they’ve helped me to grow. Helped lead me to where I’ve deeply wanted to be, and helped me hear HaShem more clearly.

Dolfy once taught me Reb Nachman’s truth: You’re becoming a better person when you can thank HaShem for troubles as well as for joys. I responded like I do to the array of IKEA parts, or any other ill: praying for cake, not for vinegar. But maybe I’m growing up, or getting at least a little wisdom with my years. I’ve learned that the same road that leads through the desert also, eventually, can lead to Jerushalayim.

A friend recently asked me to help her find a new name for her conversion. In the process I my have found one for myself. I’m considering, at least for spiritual purposes, moving from being Helen to becoming Eliana. Why? Because Eliana means God has answered. It’s a prayer, not a history.

But that’s ultimately how I think about the Mishkan. Beyond the ark in the desert, or in the Temples, or on our bimah. The Mishkan is the portal in each of us as we wander through the desert of our lives. It’s the part that prays, and that yearns to hear an answer. The Mishkan is the HaMakom in each of us that we embrace in the hope we’ll be worthy of hearing HaShem.

So for all the detailed assembly instructions, my simplest interpretation of this parshah comes down to an echo of our holiest of prayers: Listen. Listen. Listen. HaShem is answering.

Shabbat shalom.

Vayak’hel: Hearing Hashem       Helen Rosenau, TBI Eugene, March 16, 2012