This week's portion: head by head
Getting back on the wagon

Portable holiness (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. I also delivered it as a Friday night sermon at Temple Beth El, my parents' congregation, on the occasion of the Shabbat before my mother's birthday.

Late in this week's Torah portion, B'midbar, we get a fascinating description of how the Israelites prepared the Mishkan, the tabernacle, for travel.

When it was time to break camp, the Torah tells us, Aaron and his sons would take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark with it. They would cover that with leather, and then with a cloth of pure blue. The table and its accoutrements -- bowls, ladles, jars, tongs and fire-pans, libation jugs -- would be wrapped in cloths of blue, violet, and crimson, and then in tahash, a yellow-orange leather sometimes translated as dolphin skin. Everything precious in the sanctuary, in fact, was wrapped first in cloth and then in skin, and loaded onto a set of carrying poles for easy transport.

These mentions of fabrics and skins may remind us of the Torah portions we read earlier this spring, which described in loving detail how the Mishkan should be constructed. An astonishing quantity of text is dedicated to the tabernacle and its details. In this week's portion, we learn that the instruments of sacrifice were wrapped not just in cloths but in b'gadim, garments -- a word that ordinarily denotes what people wear. These pieces of the sacrificial system were treated with the same respect as human beings! How can these passages speak to us today, so many centuries distant from a model of interaction with God which required libations and blood, incense and gold?

This week's Torah portion offers instructions for how to make holiness portable. The Israelites spent forty years wandering -- forty, a number that in the rabbinic imagination signified a time of full transition. Forty was the number of fruition. During these forty years of growth, the Israelites carried the Mishkan with them according to these instructions.

Today many of us spend our lives wandering, too, or at least move a few times from here to there. (As the bumper sticker says, "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.") Certainly wandering is borne out in my history. My forebears were born in Eastern Europe, and emigrated to these shores, winding up in San Antonio. Leapfrogging part of the way back East, my sister and I are longtime transplants to Massachusetts. Thanks to the glories of air travel, we can cross these physical distances with ease, but the emotional journey of relocation shapes us even so.

But physical movement is only one part of the picture. Even for those who don't move physically, life is inherently a form of travel. Our perspectives change as we grow and mature, as we come to see our old surroundings in a new light. The house one grew up in looks different at seven and at seventeen, and different still at seventy. So does one's family.

In order for us to be healthy, we need some constancy through these moves and changes, through the leaving and arriving that we continually cycle through. Torah tells us in no uncertain terms what constitutes that consistency: we need to carry with us our individual and communal connection-point with God.

In this week's portion God speaks to Moses b'midbar, "in the wilderness." In the Israelites' journey through that wild desert we can see a metaphor for our own transformation. Our lives, like the desert, can be both harsh and beautiful. We don't always know where we're going, nor how long it will take us to get there. And sometimes the voice of God is most audible when we create our own holy spaces, and when we make a practice of pausing in those spaces, surrounded by but separate from the hubbub of ordinary life.

Once upon a time the Mishkan provided a doorway, a conduit through which our conversation with God could flow. It allowed us to sanctify the passage of time, to make teshuvah and repent for our misdeeds, to show our gratitude to the Source of All. These are vitally important to our spiritual wellbeing, both as individuals and as a community. This week's Torah portion reminds us that when we pack up to leave a place -- whether physically or metaphysically -- we must be sure to bring our relationship with God to wherever we are going.

If we could see it today, the Mishkan would seem strange to us. Beautiful, perhaps, but foreign, and maybe anachronistic. Today we relate to God not through sacrifice, but through study and prayer. (Indeed, the forthcoming Reform prayerbook is called Mishkan Tefilah, "tabernacle of prayer.") Our connection to ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One, is more portable than ever: not a landline but a cellphone. Any time I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin, or take a walk in the woods speaking aloud, or make a bracha, a blessing, my connection with God hums to life.

In the days of the Mishkan (and, later, the Temple,) sacrifices were offered on behalf of the community. Similarly, today there are prayers we can only say in community, when a minyan is present. Relating to God isn't just something we do alone. Anywhere that ten gather, the Psalms tell us, the Shekhinah -- the divine Presence -- gathers, too. What's important is not where we come together, but how. We may build beautiful synagogue structures to house our worship, but our fundamental connection with God arises not through these windows and bricks but through imrei-finu v'hegyon libinu, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts.

Once upon a time Aaron and his sons, the forebears of the Levites, were tasked with dismantling and wrapping the Mishkan for travel. In the Reform movement today we have turned gently away from the divisions between Cohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Caring for our connection-points with God is no longer a Levitical duty. Each of us is responsible for discerning what instruments provide us with access to the Source of Blessing -- prayerbooks, texts, breathtaking vistas, cherished melodies -- and for wrapping them in our own cloths of pure crimson and blue, to carry with us all the days of our lives.