I was in Baltimore last week, at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, to learn from each, to share best practices, to daven together and sing together and break bread together.
Perhaps my favorite session from the three-day convention was when we gathered in small groups to share our favorite texts from the Jewish bookshelf. In my group, we had some great pieces, including the classic line about this Jewish month: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimhah – From the time that we enter the month of Adar, our joy increases (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 29a) It’s a statement not only of the joy of Purim (and Lord knows this world needs a little more joy!), but also how the absence of joy makes us appreciate it that much more.
Another colleague spoke about a different piece from the Talmud (Yoma 35b), one that we recently learned as a group at Beth Shalom’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, about how the great sage Hillel doesn’t have enough money to get into the ancient beit midrash on Friday afternoon to learn the words of our tradition, so he climbs up on the roof and tries to listen through the skylight, and then it snows, and they find him buried in 4 feet of snow on the roof, and light a fire on Shabbat to save him, a gross violation of Shabbat. But the rabbis acknowledge that somebody who wanted so desperately to learn should not have been excluded from the beit midrash, and therefore deserved to have the Shabbat violated on his account.
Good material, indeed.
The piece of text that I cited as my favorite is the one that just keeps coming back to me, over and over, as what you might call a central theme of my work as a rabbi. It’s from Parashat Qedoshim, which we will not read until May.
קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם
Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem
Be holy, because I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
If there is one thing that I want every person that I encounter in my work as a rabbi, Jewish, non-Jewish, whatever, to know and understand, it is that we all have the potential to seek qedushah / holiness, to raise the holiness quotient in this very broken world. That joy, learning, synagogues, prayer, singing, bar mitzvah, communal engagement, etc. are all attempts to infuse our lives with holiness, and to remind us that we should zealously seek holiness in all our relationships, and to remind us that there is a spark of the Divine within every single human being.
That is what our tradition is for. That is the lesson that Judaism brings to the world. All the rest, to borrow from another classic piece of text, is commentary. And every other elaboration, every other story or custom or law from our tradition, somehow relates back to that fundamental bottom line of qedushah.
Our bar mitzvah spoke a little earlier about the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors used while wandering in the desert to perform the sacrifices commanded by God. Building the mishkan, it seems, was the Israelites’ initial path to qedushah. Right up front, before all the layers upon layers of detail that the Torah gives in order to build this glorified tent, there is a statement about the reason that God commands them to build it:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם
Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.
Make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)
Build this sanctuary, says the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, and I’ll come and actually take up residence among you.
Moshe must be thinking, “What? After taking 2,000,000 enslaved people out of Egypt with no army, THIS is what you want me to do?” And the Torah devotes almost as much time and space to describing the mishkan as it does to telling the tale of the Exodus.
But there is a reason for it: this sanctuary is the source of holiness. It was not enough merely to take themselves out of the house of bondage, but rather to seek something higher – to be in holy relationship. And that required building a fancy dwelling-place for God, a place from which Divine blessing and guidance and reassurance and strength would emanate.
Every day, we need to remind ourselves that we draw that strength from the depth and breadth of our tradition, and that ultimately the mishkan, that ancient sanctuary, becomes a metaphor for the dwelling of God’s holy presence among and within us. Just as our bar mitzvah said, courtesy of the Malbim, we each need to build that sanctuary in our hearts.
Every morning at the convention, there were multiple tefillah / prayer options. There was, of course, the “traditional” service, more or less what we do in the weekday morning service here at Beth Shalom. Then there were two non-traditional options: a meditation service and a singing service, where virtually all parts were sung to niggunim. And one morning there was a service led by our colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in the style of his experimental, floating NYC congregation, LAB/SHUL. It was a vastly abbreviated service, with words projected on a screen, snippets of ordinary weekday tefillot, mixed in with other songs and chants drawn from our tradition.
These are the things the RA is doing now to help Conservative rabbis expand their sources of inspiration for tefillah / prayer: This is where we are today, since there is a disconnect between our traditional form of tefillah and where most Jews are today, a disconnect that mandates our re-imagining how we access God and our tradition. I did meditate one day, but on other days I went to the singing services, and a melody that was repeated endlessly became, it seemed, the unofficial anthem of the convention, drawing on the sanctuary theme of Terumah:
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for You.
One could read “Ve’asu li miqdash” as, “Build a sanctuary for Me,” which is the traditional reading, or you could read it along the lines of the Malbim: “Turn me into a sanctuary.” Make of me a holy vessel. Make me a vehicle for delivering qedushah to the world.
And there is even more. A little later in Terumah, we read the following (Lev. 25:22):
וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two keruvim [i.e. cherubim, depictions of angels] that are on top of the Ark of the Pact, all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.
Picture this for a minute. This is a great visual. Look up there, above the aron ha-qodesh. You’ll see the wings of the keruvim, reaching to each other backwards over the top of the Ark of the Covenant.
Right between the wings of the keruvim. That’s where God will meet us and speak to us. That’s the originating point for all the qedushah that comes to us. That is the point of emanation.
But since the mishkan has not been in use for 3,000 years, all we have left is the portable, metaphorical sanctuary within ourselves. And that we have to build.
We have to create the space. We have to stretch ourselves upward and forward like keruvim / angels, so that our wings touch. It’s not so easy to make that magical place where God will dwell within and without us.
So how do we do that? How do we build that inner sanctuary? How do we infuse our lives and the lives of all others around us with holiness?
By heightening our awareness. By listening. By acting on the Jewish values drawn from our tradition: being grateful, humble, compassionate, loving, joyous, greeting everybody with a cheerful face, dedicating ourselves to ridding this world of all forms of persecution, oppression, hatred, bigotry, and fear.
By dedicating ourselves to our community.
By making Jewish ritual our own, so that we can use it to access those moments of qedushah.
By reinforcing the message of radical inclusion into our midst.
By protecting the unprotected.
By seeking peace.
By being sanctuaries. And by offering sanctuary where needed.
By singing together:
Turn yourself into a sanctuary. Make a space for holiness within you and around you.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2017.)