Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pekudei and Finishing the Work

The Torah portion describes the conclusion of the Tabernacle construction project with the following words: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33-38)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to the name for God, Shechinah. This name is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is most felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle.

The Torah also suggests additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, vay’khal, means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first construction project: “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.” (Genesis 2:1) There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison. When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation.

The rabbis took this connection even further, arguing an even more radical idea. They taught that God’s creation is in fact incomplete. They went on to teach that God purposely made creation imperfect and incomplete. God intended that part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation.

We perfect by creating. Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” He also quipped, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created these problems.”

And so the synagogue is the place through which God becomes manifest in the world. The purpose of the synagogue is that it is a means to an end. Its purpose is to bring holiness to our lives and goodness to the world. Long ago the rabbis created the idea of the synagogue. They fashioned the synagogue’s architecture in response to the destruction of the Temple. They gave us this very place in order to help us complete and perfect creation.

It is a place to gather, learn and pray. It is a place to heal, comfort and uplift our lives. Today we must recreate this very same place. For years synagogues have operated on the assumption that everyone feels obligated to the synagogue, that people still feel commanded to affirm their Jewish identities, that people still feel a kinship with all Jews and the State of Israel.

These assumptions no longer hold sway. This is why the synagogue, although hearkening back to ancient days, must be recreated for a new age. We must mold something new out of the old. We must infuse synagogue life with new meaning and new energy, with new songs and new learning. Take heart from this week’s portion. There we are reminded that in truth there are no new creations. Everything hearkens back to the first creation account. All else is recreating.

Whenever we finish a book of the Torah as we do on this Shabbat we say, chazak, chazakh v’nitchazeik—strength, and more strength, let us be strengthened. In Jewish life we are never finished, creation is forever incomplete. And so we begin again, each and every year, each and every week, each and every day, and each and every moment.

That is why spring, although seemingly distant, offers us so much hope. The flowers bloom. The trees are reborn. Creation is renewed.

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