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  • Lis Shapiro

Parshat Tetzaveh :: February 24, 2024

Over the past months, we’ve embarked on a collective journey every Shabbat from slavery in Egypt, to freedom and on to Har Sinai. In accepting the Torah at Sinai, we were transformed to become a people of the covenant. In doing so, we became an am kadosh, a holy people.

Now I am sure you were always warned by your parents to always read the small print before signing any contract. Understand the details. Know what you are committing to. It is nothing short of amazing that at Sinai, Am Israel did the opposite. Na’aseh v’nishma. They signed onto something without knowing the details or expectations of being part of a covenantal relationship. The details of the covenant are introduced in Mishpatim and Terumah and, in retrospect, they provide the original user manual of how to be holy.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l proposes that the Sanctuary and the priesthood were to further transform us into a nation. He emphasizes that the “Mishkan itself embodied the principle of the sacred'' and was situated in the middle of the camp, so it became the central focus in view of all the people gathered around. 

After the destruction of the Temple, the focus of kedusha transferred to the home, a mishkan m’at. The establishment of kehilot in the diaspora and within Eretz Israel ensured our continued survival, with the establishment of synagogues, yeshivot and essential communal institutions. Rabbi Sacks continues: “What our ancestors had in full measure was G-d’s spirit. They felt G-d close. There is something moving about the word Jews used to describe this…the Shechinah, usually translated as the Divine Presence. It actually means something more striking. A shachen is a neighbor, the person who lives next door. That is how close Jews felt G-d to be. Yes, He is more distant than the furthest galaxy, but He is also closer to us than we are to ourselves. The G-d of Abraham is not a distant G-d. He is enthroned in majesty in heaven. But He is also parent, partner, neighbor, mentor, friend.”

Rabbi Sacks continues, “So it was for many centuries. Then something changed… At a certain point in the modern age, many Jews became ultra-rationalists. They pioneered in physics, medicine, sociology, anthropology, mathematics and philosophy. They became shapers of the modern mind. But in the process, many lost that sense of intimacy with G-d that resonated so powerfully, who retained that intimate relationship.”

We are all familiar with and perhaps identify with the beloved fictional figure of Tevye the milkman, or wish we had that kind of simple, straightforward, trusting relationship to plead as he did: “Dear G-d, Did you have to send me news like that today of all days? I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” 

Tevye conversed with G-d one to one. He argued, pleaded, cried, and praised. But did he ever have doubts? 

One of the most popular songs we sing is Ani Maamin, I Believe. Truthfully though, many do experience moments of doubt. In her shiur last motzei Shabbat, Belaynesh explained that when facing challenging difficulties, we are tempted to ask למה… why? Why does G-d remain hidden in difficult times, why so much intolerable pain? Belaynesh suggested we modify our inflection from למה ‘WHY?’ to ל-מה, ‘FOR WHAT PURPOSE’. ל-מה is connected to the phrase in the Unetanah Tokef prayer of Yom Kippur, kol d’mama daka, the small still voice. The source of this prayer is the narrative of Elijah fleeing to the desert, and being challenged by G-d with the question מה לך פו? ~ Ma Lecha Po? - What are you doing here?

When feeling doubt, these queries, ל-מה and מה לך פו serve like sparks of light, to help us when in doubt, lighting a spiritual metamorphosis of sorts, much like the light of the נר תמיד that illuminates the darkness.

As I shared my draft of this dvar with Carla Sulzbach, a friend who is a biblical scholar, she pointed out that Anthem i, one of Leonard Cohen’s last songs, is filled with illusions to sparks of light. Carla sent me a comment by Montrealer Harry Freedman: “Leonard Cohen … once said that one of the great themes of kabbalistic thought is the idea of “repairing the face of G-d”… referring to the kabbalistic legend about a cosmic catastrophe at the moment of creation. The divine energy which connects heaven and earth was being poured into vessels. But the energy was too strong for the vessels. They broke and heavenly sparks fell to earth, where they became trapped beneath the fragments of the broken vessels that landed on top of them. The idea behind the legend is that only by elevating the sparks can we repair the world. Fortunately, he tells us in his song Anthem, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

Perhaps this “crack in everything” in Cohen’s lyrics can allude to our doubts, which, like a crack, can let the light in, breaking our inner darkness with sparks of the divine. Or even let our inner light shine forth. The reassuring light of the Ner Tamid invites us to draw close to the Shechina to be re-inspired with a sense of purpose, and illuminate our world.

With the pain of October 7th ever present, we find ourselves back in the tenuous world of Tevye the milkman and our ancestors, whose spiritual resilience provides models for us. We too, can feel a close and personal connection to converse with, plead and argue in deep confidence that G-d pays attention to us and listens.

Rabbi Sacks said, “No faith ever held G-d so close. Yes, we wrestled with Him, and He with us. Jews questioned, argued, challenged. We were not passive accepters of our fate. It was always a tempestuous relationship. But it was never less than a relationship. For us, as Martin Buber said, G-d was always a Thou, not an It, nor a person, not a concept, but a source of love, not a metaphysical abstraction.”

May the ever-present Ner Tamid compel us to feel a close and personal connection with our Creator in deep confidence that we are heard. Looking up towards the Ner Tamid, may its light and the Shechina rekindle hope. 

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