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Friday, March 25, 2011

Parshat Shemini - A Midrash on Nadav and Avihu: Mindful Innovation

The parashah this week is Shemini (Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1-11:37). Instead of a traditional d'var Torah I am sharing with all of you an original midrash I wrote about Nadav and Avihu. 

These two sons of Aaron, the High Priest, after seeing Divine fire come down from heaven and devour the first sacrifice made in the newly-dedicated mishkan (Sanctuary), decide to take matters into their own hands. They bring a "strange fire" before God, that God had not commanded them, and their punishment was that they were then devoured by Divine fire. The rabbis have commented on this for years, questioning whether Nadav and Avihu were simply brash, arrogant upstarts, or if something else prompted them to bring the "strange fire" before God.

I have always liked to think of Nadav and Avihu as the first religious innovators, trying to build on tradition while creating meaningful ritual. Unfortunately, they were a little ahead of their time and so they suffered the consequences. Once you read my midrash you'll understand why I say this.

However, I also believe this narrative can relate to the principles of mindfulness. You will see my comments on this in the epilogue.

Strange and Holy Fire
The time had finally arrived.  The animals had been slaughtered and placed on the altar exactly as God had commanded.  Now they had only to wait.
For the first time Aaron and his sons were making a sacrifice on behalf of the people in the newly dedicated mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary.

As they stood waiting, there suddenly appeared a blinding light in the heavens. A bolt of fire then descended upon the altar and in an instant the slaughtered animals were consumed.  The sacrifice had been accepted by God.  Enveloped by smoke, the smell of charred flesh permeating their nostrils, they could feel the presence of God within and around them.  Yet, as quickly as it had appeared, so too it dissipated with the smoke from the sacrifice.

Aaron’s sons stood awestruck. They felt blessed to have been given the duty of serving God and the people through the performance of sacrifices.  Their father had already experienced God’s presence, along with Moses, but this was the first time that the four of them had felt the power of the Presence.

After the smoke disappeared none of the brothers said a word.  So filled were they with the holiness of the moment, there were no words to express their feelings.  Instead, each went his own way to spend time pondering - and reliving -- that holy moment.

Not long after that first sacrifice had been completed, Nadav and Avihu found each other and began to share their thoughts.  These two sons of Aaron had always been particularly close to each other and to their father.  They shared a sense of connection to Aaron, and with the Divine, that their other brothers did not.  They had never spoken of this connection, yet they and their father could not deny it. And so together, outside the entrance of the mishkan, they spoke in hushed tones of how it felt to witness God’s power.  As they attempted to share their feelings, it became clear that they could not be expressed in mere words.  “I only wish I could feel that sense of Divine power again,” said Nadav.  “But it was not only the power,” replied Avihu, “it was also the beauty of the moment.  The beauty of the perfect light of the Divine entering the world and the love of God that I felt in that moment.”  Nadav understood Avihu completely.  Suddenly, he had a thought.

“Avihu, why do we need to wait until father tells us that it is time to sacrifice again?  Why can’t we simply bring our own offering as a way of showing our love and thanks to God?  Then we can feel God’s presence again!”
Avihu seemed stunned by his brother’s suggestion;  “we can only do what is prescribed by God at the prescribed hour.  We must follow God’s - and father’s - instructions.”  “But why? Are we not priests as well? Don’t we have as much right as our father to worship God?  If I want to express my love of God, or my thanks for being freed from slavery or for being a priest why can’t I do that on my own?”  “Because, Nadav, we have been instructed in the correct way to worship God.  Who knows what might happen if we try doing things on our own!  The consequences could be enormous if we made a single mistake!”

“No!” exclaimed Nadav, “what could be wrong with any way of showing love and thanksgiving to God?” “Nadav, it’s not so simple.  You know that God expects our worship to be performed in a specific way.  Besides, we’ve only done this once.  Even father approached the task with trepidation, afraid that he might not perform the sacrifice correctly.  So who are we to try this on our own.”

Nadav shook his head. In his heart, he couldn’t understand why all people, not only the priests, couldn’t show their own love of God by making their own sacrifices.  But he knew that these ideas were really too radical for his somewhat less adventurous brothers, father and uncle.  Instead, he continued his attempt to convince Avihu that there was no earthly reason why they had to wait around for Aaron or Moses to instruct them.  If their sacrifice came from their heart then that should be sufficient.  It was the intention and not the exact details of the slaughter and sacrifice that mattered.

Avihu finally began to relent, “Perhaps you are right,” he said, “Perhaps we can present our own offering before God.  Then we will be able to feel God’s power and presence whenever we choose.  But I’m still worried about performing the actual slaughter and sacrifice inappropriately.  I mean, there must be a reason why God had Moses instruct us in the details.”   “ I have a compromise,” replied Nadav.  “Instead of sacrificing an animal let us bring something sweet and fragrant like incense before God, let us use their sweet fragrance to express our love of God.  Then God’s presence will again descend upon us and we will witness and be a part of God’s power yet once again … and we won’t have to worry about messing up a sacrifice!  Besides, the smell of burning flesh was the least moving part of the whole experience for me. Incense will be much nicer!” 

Incense was something to which Avihu could agree.  After all, what could be wrong with offering God some sweet smelling spices?  And so, he agreed to Nada’s compromise.

Nadav and Avihu filled their fire pans with incense and entered the sanctuary.  Their father and brothers turned towards them as they entered.  Aaron looked puzzled, but Nadav and Avihu kept moving at a brisk pace towards the altar.  Aaron, Elazar and Ithamar began moving towards them.  This only made the brothers more determined.  They proceeded more swiftly toward the altar when, suddenly, everything around them froze.  Nadav and Avihu were the only people or things moving in the sanctuary.  Even the flames of the menorah stood frozen in midair.  They looked at each other bewildered when suddenly they heard a voice coming, it seemed, from all around them.  The voice sounded familiar, yet not.  “My sons, what are you doing?”   “Father?” said Nadav, looking towards Aaron.  “No,” replied the voice, “It is I.  The one who has no name.” The brothers looked at each other in amazement.  Could this be?  Again the voice spoke to them, “Once more I ask you, what are you doing?”  Once they recovered from their initial shock Nadav replied,  “We are offering incense to you as a sign of our love and gratitude.”  “At whose request are you doing this?  Did your father or your uncle instruct you to make this offering?”  “No,” replied Avihu, “we were so in awe of our experience of You when we offered the sacrifices, that we wanted to feel your presence again and offer thanks for all that you have given us.”  “And what do you think the people’s reaction will be when they see you make an offering that was not prescribed?”  Neither brother had a response to this.  “We never thought about that,” replied Nadav.  “I will tell you what the people’s response will be.”  After a pause, God continued speaking.

“Remember, this is a people who is just now tasting freedom for the first time.  This people built a Golden Calf when they were unsure of my presence.  This people is just learning what it means to have a relationship with me and how to worship me.  If they see you, their priests, making offerings on a whim, they too may believe that they can simply worship whenever and however they so choose.”  “But what is wrong with that,” asked Nadav?  “In the future there will be nothing wrong with that," replied God,   "but now is not the time for them to create their own ways to praise me.  First, the people – and their leaders – must learn my ways.  They must allow the service of God to replace the service to Pharaoh in their hearts.  They must come to know me. The only way that they can do this is by following exactly the prescribed method of worship that I have handed down to Moses and Aaron.  Once that structure becomes inscribed upon their hearts and in their minds then, and only then, can they begin to search for new ways to express their devotion to me. And I must use you to teach the people this lesson.” 

Nadav and Avihu did not like the sound of this.  “Exactly how will you use us?” asked Avihu.  God hesitated and then replied, “My sons you shall become sanctified to me through fire. At the same time you shall serve as a warning to the people that my instructions must be followed.”  “Sanctified through fire?” asked Avihu.  “Yes.  You are my beloved children, the sons of Aaron.  I shall bring you near to me.  You shall be at my side.  You shall indeed achieve your goal of feeling my presence always, while at the same time the people shall learn not to do as you have done.”

Nadav and Avihu gazed at each other, at first in shock, but then with a look of understanding and acceptance.  They realized that they were about to give up their lives in this world in order to instruct the people.  In doing so, they would also be brought closer to God, which was their original goal.  Once this became clear they were no longer afraid, but rather, they felt blessed to be able to fulfill this role.  “We have heard what you have said and we are ready to do your will,” they responded as one.

At that precise moment, the world around them began to move once again.  The two brothers stopped and looked at each other momentarily.  They then hurried to place their pans upon the altar.  As they did so, a blinding light appeared in the heavens, which then hurtled towards the earth and smote Nadav and Avihu as they gazed knowingly into each other’s eyes.

Aaron walked over and looked at the remains of his two beloved sons lying there.  They seemed so filled with peace.  Then, as looked up towards the heavens, an almost imperceptible smile appeared upon his face; at the same time, tears began to flow.  In that moment, he knew and understood what had just occurred.  He then turned towards his two remaining sons and told them to remove their brothers’ bodies from the sanctuary for, regardless of whatever shock or grief they might be feeling, the time had once again come for God’s work to be performed.  

Aaron and his sons continued from then on to perform the sacrifices just as God had prescribed, as did the priests for generations to follow.  Only centuries later, long after the sacrifices had ceased to take place, did the spirit of Nadav, whose name means “the one who has given,” and Avihu, meaning, “he is my father” descend upon the people of Israel.  That spirit continues to this day allowing, indeed encouraging, all of us to find our own paths to give thanks to and praise God.  By doing so, with the kind of presence and passion that these two brothers had, we too have the opportunity in each moment to become sanctified and holy in the eyes of God and the entire community of Israel.

Epilogue

After re-reading my midrash I wondered how it might relate to principles of mindfulness. In pondering this question I came up with a few responses:

1) Re-reading the original narrative and my midrash, reminded me of the importance of the moment. Being mindful of my current reactions helped me to catch a glimpse of where I was in the moment when I read the text. This "being in the moment" is certainly an essential tenet of mindfulness.

2) In reading the text I realized that there were parts of my midrash (which I originally wrote a few years back) with which I no longer agreed. My urge was to change the midrash in order to make it read as I would like it to read in 2011. However, this was based in a belief that the current midrash was not "perfect". It was not exactly what I wanted it to be at this moment. However, nothing is perfect, nothing is the best or worst. things simply are what they are. If we try to change ourselves in order to make ourselves "better" it not only implies that we are not good as we are, it does not allow us to
appreciate who we are (or what we have created) simply as it is - warts, beauty marks, and all! And so, I did not change anything.

3) Building on my two previous points, I realized that in this moment I did not necessarily want to react to the Torah text in the way that I did when I wrote this midrash. There was a big part of me that wanted to write a new commentary simply because I wanted to focus on different issues in the story of Nadav and Avihu. However, this again points to the reality that in each moment our reaction differs based on who and where we are in that moment. But rather than judge my previous commentary as "bad" because it didn't fit where I was in this moment, I was able to accept it as indicative of where I "was" when I wrote it. Again, this is neither bad nor good ... it simply is what it is.

4) Finally, in re-reading the midrash I realized that Nadav and Avihu (and the readers of the midrash) can learn another important lesson from what occurred. For perhaps what Nadav and Avihu did that caused them to be burned up was not simply innovating before their time. Rather, it was simply not being "in their time." In other words, Nadav and Avihu were so enthralled by the past (what they had witnessed when the fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice) that they immediately began to think about how they could recreate it in the future.

They were ignoring what was happening in the present moment. It was only when God froze the scene that they found themselves living in the moment. They were unable to do this without divine intervention, just as so many of us are unable to live in the moment without connecting with the Divine in our lives. Reinterpreting the text this way, perhaps the lesson is not only that we needed to wait and understand the tradition before we began to innovated, but that we need to stop and become aware of our experience of the present rather than focusing on recreating the past by focusing on creating a new future. Perhaps this is stretching it a little, but it is an idea ... at least for this moment!
Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Parshat Tzav: Finding Oneness in Our Broken World

This week's parashah/ portion is Tzav (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36). In it the detailed description of the various sacrifices to be offered continues.  Last year, my commentary on this parashah began with the following :

"The final sacrifice mentioned in the parashah is the zevakh shelamim. This is usually translated as the "peace offering" or "good-will offering.’ The word shelamim comes from the same root as shalom/peace and shalem/whole. One contemporary understanding of this sacrifice is as an offering of greeting. According to Baruch Levine and other scholars, it was a meal shared between the priests, the people who brought the offering and God.

"In other words, through sharing a sacred meal there was a connection being made between the people, the priests and the Divine. Not only was this a meal of greeting, but the sharing of the sacrificial animal could also bring a sense of peace and wholeness that was a direct result of feeling connected to God and community (as represented be the priests). The sharing of this sacrifice allowed the participants to experience, in a visceral way, the connection that exists between all human beings and remind us of the shelaimut/wholeness and achdut/oneness of existence.  And when the final portion of the sacrifice was offered on the altar to God, it was as if God was partaking of the sacrifice along with the priest and
the worshipper."
As I read this today, I can’t but help think of all the tragedies our world is facing now. Often, it as in times of tragedy, rather than in moment of joy, when we stop for a moment to acknowledge our interconnected nature.

When I heard of the devastation and destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami, I could not help but shudder. I could not help but feel the grief and shock of the people of Japan, even if mine was and is only minuscule by comparison. 

As I read about and watched the slaughters perpetrated by Qadaffi on his own people or read Nicholas Kristoff’s accounts of the brutality taking place in Qatar (a US ally) I had a similar reactions, coupled with anger and a drop of hatred for this maniacal dictator.

And yet, though I believe these emotions were felt by most, if not all, of us, it is also true that we were celebrating along with the Egyptians in Tahrhir Square just a few short weeks ago.  That was a time when it did seem like much of the world was connected in joy, celebration and gratitude.  Would that there were more moments like these, and fewer of the former.

In last year’s commentary I spoke of a sacrifice that somehow connected the people, the priests and God in a kind of sacred meal.  In contemporary parlance, one might say instead: the ordinary people, the leadership and God.  It is often difficult to think of us as all as connected within God when events like those in Libya or in Egypt are occurring. After all, they seem primarily political and not spiritual.  Yet, we commonly refer to earthquakes and tsunamis as “acts of God.”  Why not other types of tragedies?  However, to me, equating tragedies of any kind with God’s actions gives a skewed idea of what God is.  God becomes simply the power that wreaks havoc on humanity. 

And so I ask, a tsunami is an act of God, what about a rainbow?  If the devastation of an earthquake is a sign of God’s hand playing a role in human history, why not the beauty and awe of a lunar eclipse or a brilliant sunset?  Why is it that we insist on connecting unexplained tragedies with godliness and ignore indescribable beauty?

If “all is God”, as Jewish and other mystical traditions teach, then God can be found in the destruction in Japan as well as the rain that brings end to a drought.  If “all is God” then God’s presence is somehow in the plume of radioactive smoke rising in Daiichi and in the destruction being wrought upon the Libyan people, as well as in the hearts of those rebelling against tyranny in Libya and  the people in Tahrhir square, as well as with the workers literally risking their lives at the nuclear power plant.

Looking at all this it easy to see how someone might throw up their hands and claim that God does not exist.  After all, how could God be causing all of these events? How could God cause these tragedies to occur, regardless of the counter-balance, of sorts, that is provided by the miracles that also occurred?  But it is in the very phrasing of this question that the problem can be found.  For I did not say that God “caused” any of these events. I simply said that God was “present.”

I do not believe in a God that causes earthquakes and tsunamis, any more than I believe in a God that causes the rains to fall.  I do not believe in a God that causes human beings to kill any more than I believe in a God that causes us to heal.

  God is the force that set the natural world in motion, to do what it will based on what we now call the “laws of nature.”  God is the life force that brought humanity forth from our ancient ancestors (yes. I believe in evolution. I just don’t know how to describe it accurately). 

But as with any energy source, the power that we inherently receive from the Divine flow in the world can be harnessed for good or for evil (I will not draw analogies to nuclear power at this time, as that would seem insensitive and crass.  But one can imagine them).  So, it is as if Gaddafi has taken the power that he has been given as a human being and then detached himself from its divine source and replacing it with the belief that he – his ego – is the source of his power.  He is ultimately detached from anything Divine and, it would seem, that he is incapable of reconnecting. 

I don’t know if the rebels in Libya or those in Tahrhir Square would see themselves as connected to the Divine in their fight, though I’m sure some do or did.  But, for me, simply the fact that they are joining together to fight for a greater good means that they are indeed connected to the Divine.  It is the life force of the Divine that gives them the strength to do what they are doing, or have done, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The same can be said for our leadership.  If they act carefully and in the best interest of humanity, the actions taken today by the United Nations can bring about peace and serve God’s “design.”  Yet, we know all too well, what can happen to the best-laid plans of human beings.  So let us hope and pray that the sense of interconnectedness and responsibility continues to guide them and that this struggle does not become one about ego and power.  For once that happens, God has been disconnected from the process.

In closing, I would like to return to the paragraph I cited from last year’s commentary.  Later on, in that commentary I write about the nature of this “sacred meal”: “what made this meal extraordinary was that it was being shared with God.  It was a reminder that, even though the priests had a different status in their society, and that God was beyond being human, all three entities shared something.  That something, represented by the sacrificial meal, is Oneness. Oneness in this case means that ultimately there is no separation or duality in existence. Oneness is at the heart of Kedushah/holiness that plays such a central role in Va’yikra/Leviticus and the entire Torah.”  I wrote this by way of comparing the sacrificial meal to other religious traditions where the food ingested, such as the wine and wafer of the Eucharist, carry within them the power of holiness.  But instead, in this sacred meal, it is the sharing of the meal between people, leaders and God that makes it holy.  Our presence is necessary in order to sanctify the ritual.  For it is in the oneness of the sharing that holiness is found.

In short, this ritual meal is an “act of humanity” as much as it is an “act of God.”  For, in mystical terms, there is no difference.  All is One.  All is God.  And so, in this moment in history, we are partaking of both the communal sacred meal of tragedy as well as that of joy and celebration.  We are tasting the bitterness of tyranny brought about by the severing of unity, just as we are tasting the sweet wine of freedom and redemption which proclaim that same unity.

As we continue to live through these ever-changing times let us do the best we can to maintain the sense of oneness and connection that brings holiness into the world, even as there are those who try to stop it.  Let us remember that indeed, God is everything. But that does not mean that everything we do is Godly.   For only those things that perpetuate the oneness are truly godly.  The others are either an imitation, or even an abomination.  Let us do what we can in each moment to reveal those abominations for what they are and instead shine the light of the Divine into the world through acts of salvation, caring and love.

Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Parshat Vayikra: Creating a Structure for Holiness

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus. There is a long-standing custom within traditional Judaism that children begin their studies with Vayikra.  It has always seemed strange that children were to  begin with the book of Vayikra and its detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices and its intricate laws and regulations.  It always seemed more logical to start with the creation story or the intricate family dynamics of our ancestors found in Bereshit/Genesis or the drama of slavery and redemption found in Shemot/Exodus.

Over time, I have come to realize that there is great wisdom to our Sages' decision to begin Torah study with Vayikra. For one can discover through delving into this "middle" book of the Torah, the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew, and a human being.

Vayikra means "and he (God) called." It may seem easier
for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about the mythic journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt or the revelation on Mt Sinai. However, to hear God's call in the description of sacrifices is not so simple. However, Vayikra is about more than just rules and regulations. At the core of this, the middle  book of the Torah, is an attempt to create a structure for a new society. This structure is based on the commandment that is
physically at the center of the book of Vayikra, and therefore near the exact physical center point of the Torah scroll: "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God."  This deceptively simple command is the essence of our quest for holiness and divinity in our world.

When we reach Chapter 19 in Parashat Kedoshim (holiness), we will read
  this commandment as one of a group of commandments that instruct us to be holy for God is holy. This quest for holiness and holy living is at the core of the Torah, for it is at our core as individuals and at the core of creating community. However, in order to create a society that focuses on holiness there must be a structure as well as a path set out for people to follow. The structure may be adjusted from generation to generation, and the direction and width of the path may change as well, but they are both always present in our journey towards holiness. The heart and soul of this structure is the commandment quoted above, which reminds us that each and every person we encounter in life – from our "worst enemy" to our "best friend," is created in the image of the Divine.

Jewish tradition is based on what we call halakhah. Most commonly
  translated as "Jewish law," a more accurate translation might be "the way to walk." Halakhah is the path that is meant to lead us through life. It is the path of holiness. At one moment, the path may seem broad and winding, while at another it seems narrow and treacherous. It is halakhah, in its broadest, most flexible and porous sense that provides the
boundaries for the path. As a liberal Jew, I often prefer to focus on its flexibility and adaptability. Yet, without an inner structure, without a path to follow it is ultimately more difficult for us to adapt and change.

However, the path and the structure, as important as they are, are not
  simply there to give us a sense of safety, security and grounding. For as much as we would like to feel safe, secure and grounded while walking the path, ultimately we never know when the earth will shift beneath our feet, nor where the structure might be weakening. Rather, the path and the structure give us a sense of where others have gone before us in their journey of holiness. Each step we take along the path invariably changes its very shape. Sometimes this occurs without us realizing, while at other times we change the path or reshape the structure quite intentionally, and even radically. How and why the path changes is not as important as  noticing the fact that is indeed changing with each step and in every moment and noticing where we are as this occurs.

In addition to changes we affect as individuals, the community also
has an effect on the path as well. It is the community's search for holiness, and our part in it, that reminds us that we are created in the image of God, and that allows us the freedom to discover who we are as individuals and as part of a community. The individual path and the communal path are not totally distinct, nor are they the same. Rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Change in one invariably calls for change in the other. For me, that is the essence of my halakhah; my way of walking the path of holiness. For to be holy does not mean that we are meant to understand exactly what holiness is and to behave in that exact way. Instead, to be holy means to seek out the holiness and divinity in our world as we walk the path step-by-step and moment-by-moment.

In the end, the essence of what it means to seek holiness, and hear
  the call of the Divine, at least for me, is not found in observing the traditional forms of ritual and behavior that we have come to call halakhah. For traditional halakhah is only one of the paths to holiness.

Every moment is an opportunity for each of us to make a choice, and each step is both the destination of our journey up until that point as well as the next step on the journey which we are about to undertake. As we take each step on our paths, let us remember "Vayikra" – that God has called, is
calling and will always call – to each of us in every moment and at every step along the way.  It is this that helps us decide where we will go with our next step as we walk the path of holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, March 4, 2011

Parshat Pekudei: Experiencing the Fire Within

This week, we read the parashah/portion of Pekudei (Shemot/Exodus38:21- 40:38), which also completes the reading of the book of Shemot/Exodus. In this parashah, we read of the actual construction and dedication of the mishkan/tabernacle and the anointing of Aaron and his son as kohanim/priests by Moses.

In analyzing this parashah, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, in her book “The Particulars of Rapture,” focuses on the image of fire as central to our understanding of this parashah, even though it doesn’t seem to play a major role in the actual text.


Though this may be true, Zornberg reminds us that fire plays a central role in both the Torah and the midrashic/rabbinic interpretations of Shemot.  Moses begins his career as prophet after hearing God's voice from the fire of the burning bush; a pillar of fire guided and protected the Israelites during their journey out of Egypt; fire melted the gold and miraculously produced the Golden Calf; and fire is used for most of the work of building the Mishkan.  As I wrote last week, the importance of fire is also pointed to by the fact that the kindling of fire is specifically mentioned as primary prohibitions of Shabbat.


Fire is powerful and mysterious because of its ability to both create and destroy simultaneously (again, see last week’s commentary). The dual wick of the candle used for havdallah, the ceremony at the end of Shabbat, reminds us of what seems to be the duality and contradictions inherent in fire. However, in reality fire is not actually  "good" and "bad" or "creative" and "destructive." These are simply labels we use based on our own judgmental minds' perspective. For fire is simultaneously all of these and none.  Fire is simply fire. Such is the case with all of God's creation. It is our judgmental mind that creates these dualities from what is actually a unified whole. Refraining from lighting fire on Shabbat reminds us how important fire is to us and all that it contains within. Only in its absence do we have the time to reflect on this.


In her discussion of fire and the mishkan, Zornberg refers to a midrash which states that a model of the mishkan had been shown to Moses in black fire, white fire, red fire and green fire (The Particulars of Rapture, pp. 478-79). When God tells Moses to "set it [the mishkan] up according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain (Shemot 26:30)" God is referring to the fiery image that was revealed to Moses on Sinai.  This verse might simply have been interpreted as God telling Moses to build the mishkan as a "pedantic, mechanical imitation; or else, a minimalist sketch of the original.” The midrash says it is more than that.


However, it is not easy to replicate in the physical realm, that which had previously existed only as a fiery image. For fire is constantly changing color, shape and intensity. Fire does not hold a fixed form. According to Zornberg, the fiery model may have been meant to show Moses, and later Bezalel, the artisan, who was to build the mishkan, that they were "free to create entirely new combinations of elements, to think new thoughts whose fitness for God's presence is manifested not in the exactness of the replica but in the intensity of the vision."  Though this may be true, we also find exact instructions for the building of the mishkan in the Torah. What is the meaning of these precise instructions, if the building of the mishkan is to be left to the artist’s imagination?

Zornberg states that the final structure’s difference in form from the actual instructions implies that there was an improvisational aspect to the building of the mishkan. This improvisation began with the Moses’s experience of the ‘mishkan of fire’ on Mt. Sinai. The great Hassidic rabbi, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, stated that "Moses and his generation conceived of the sanctuary by their own light, their own prophetic vision - 'and so you shall make it': through the generations, you shall make God's sanctuary according to the visions of your own time and place." In other words, it is our vision, and its intensity, that is central to the act of building our sanctuaries. This began with the building of the first sanctuary, the mishkan.


Therefore, just as Moses interpreted the fiery vision that he saw on Sinai to Bezalel, so Bezalel then formed his own vision of the fire. The name Bezalel means “in the shadow of God.” Being one who was in the Divine shadow implies that the Divine light was near him. Yet, if he is in God's shadow it is also true that something of the Divine Presence was blocking the light so that he was unable to see its entirety. Bezalel could only approximate what he believed the Divine light to be. He could only create his interpretation, his improvisation, of how the fiery Divine model of the mishkan had looked to Moses. Just as the Hasidim say that no two prophets speak in the same voice, so no two artists create the same vision. No two people can have the same experience of God either, nor can they express their experience in the same way.


Just as Bezalel create the first sanctuary, the mishkan, according to his understanding of the Divine model, so too do we build our sanctuaries - and our communities within which we can find God - according to our understanding. As Levi Yitzhak says, each time and place has its own visions. Each generation, each community has its own interpretation and understanding. The creative fire that burns within us has the ability to create structures and entities that express our understanding of what it means to live "in the shadow of God." We cannot see God any more than could Bezalel himself, and yet we have as much ability to envision God's model and create our own improvisational vision, as did Bezalel.


As we build our communities today, we must remember that each of us is standing in the shadow of the Divine, both individually and communally. It is up to us to create communities and structures within which God's presence and warmth can be experienced. It is up to us to see that the flames continue to warm us and to warm others.  And we cannot allow the intensity of the flames to grow so great that it becomes destructive. Mindfulness can be defined as moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness (at least according to mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn). However, it is usually viewed as an individual endeavor. I believe that the narrative of the building of the mishkan, built and imagined by individuals as a place for communal experience of the divine, also points to a communal type of mindfulness. For just as Jung posited that there is an individual and a collective unconscious, so do I believe that there is an individual and a communal sense of mindfulness.


Moses and Bezalel experienced the divine in the moment, which is an individual awareness that they each experienced. In translating that individual awareness of the fiery mishkan that changed it’s shape in every moment, they created a model that, using materials provided by the community, that would enable the community to encounter the divine in each moment both individually and communally. In this way, we each experience the Divine fiery model each time we encounter our sanctuary and each time we encounter our community. Torah helps guide us in this process, but even Torah is experienced differently each time we encounter it.  


This is what we must be mindful of during each encounter. If we do this, then we are fulfilling our responsibility. We are then allowing the flame of passion for God and community to burn within us and to create new visions, new models and new worlds. We create these new worlds in each moment, but only if we are aware of what it is that we are experiencing. By doing so, we continue the tradition that began with Moses and Bezalel, if not before; we continue to create new models for those who will come after us. Then, if they too can experience these models with a sense of mindfulness, both individually and communally, they too will be able to live in the shadow of God.  They will also be able to share their own inner fires with others at least for that moment.  When that moment is over, the opportunity to experience that particular Divine fire may be lost, but a new experience will also begin. And so, it continues from moment to moment, person to person, and generation to generation, without end.

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