Early Tuesday morning – the sun was just coming up. It was perfectly quiet, save for the chirping of one bird. The snow blanketed the street, the driveway, the walkways, the grass – a smooth, silky, silent covering. I am dressed in the ritual garb of shoveling – hat, gloves, boots, warm jacket – and for a moment, before the scrape, scrape, scrape of the shovel, I listened to the vibrations of the world beginning to awaken after a storm. I do not look forward to shoveling snow; however, it is part of a world that also permits me to appreciate that moment of pure white, pure peace and tranquility.
Of course, this is as my family and friends are posting pictures of themselves this week at the beaches in southern California, complaining about how hot it is. There I was, bundled up, shovel in hand…..how to find tranquility, how to quiet that inner chatter, how to be present to the beauty in front of me, even when friends and family sometimes get in the way?
In Torah this week, there is a moment of pure peace and tranquility. The chaos of leaving Egypt, of escaping the pursuit of the Egyptians, of the masses of our people frantic in the desert is, for a moment, halted. The plans for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are introduced. Moses begins to quietly take up a collection for the materials. God gives Israel the plans to build this Mishkan – the layout, the materials, the size, the contents…. its purpose? A holy dwelling place.
I don’t know about you, but having lived through a number of construction projects and school projects (often designed more for parents than students!), I would describe them more as chaotic and stressful rather than as peaceful or tranquil moments, more like a volcanic eruption than like a butterfly’s emergence from a cocoon. Yet, this Torah portion is filled with details that read like a shopping list for either Home Depot or Michaels: poles and rings, knobs and clasps, wood and fabric, shiny baubles, figures and measurements.
As you may surmise, this is about more than a synagogue master plan. Our first clue: God said: “Let them make for me a Mishkan, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8) The Midrash teaches: Moses’ mouth dropped! He said, “I don’t understand. You taught me in your Torah that `God’s glory fills the heavens and the earth.’ [Jeremiah 23:2]. How can that which fills the heavens and the earth fit into this small tent that we are going to build?” God said, “I don’t even need then whole Mishkan. I can even fit myself in tiny space between the faces of the two Cherubim that sit on the Ark of the Covenant. After all, I am God. I can be everywhere in the world at once. I can be just with each of you at the same time.” [Exodus Rabbah 34a]. The Mishkan is about recognizing God’s presence, God’s fingerprint in all of creation; it is a physical reminder of it – when we see it, we remember that God is in fact not contained, but that we have to build a place inside ourselves to be open to God’s presence in our lives.
Second clue: knowing there is actually no Home Depot in the wilderness of Sinai, God instructs that these materials are to be brought by every person ‘whose heart is inspired in generosity, you shall take My offering.’ These are details for a blueprint to create a spiritual community, where one can find peace and tranquility, support and caring.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk teaches one of my favorite pieces of wisdom about God’s presence in our lives. He once asked a number of learned men who were visiting with him: “Where is the dwelling of God?” They laughed at him, saying, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then the Kotzker Rebbe answered his own question: “God dwells wherever [and whenever] we let God in.” So, while I am once again fielding many comments about how cold it is here, and conclusions about how much I must miss California right now (and believe me, it would be nice to be a bit warmer!), these words are a reminder to me that holiness resides in all places, whenever we open ourselves to it. Even in the snow, even in the shopping and building lists, maybe even especially in those details.