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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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