Life journey: Making ourselves into a sanctuary

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer

By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist

Torah portion: Pekudei (Exodus: 38:21-40:38)

I was at Rosenblum’s bookstore the other day, where I enjoyed browsing through the new selection of Hebrew books.  My wife Peggy is always terrified when I visit a bookstore, especially a Jewish bookstore as fine as Rosenblum’s.  She’s afraid that my weekly salary will be spent acquiring new Hebrew books. I can’t deny I love books. 

While I was browsing, I saw a set of Hebrew books called Netivot Shalom by Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky.  I snatched them up.  Rabbi Shalom Noach was born in Belarus, near Lithuania. He was educated at the Slonimer Yeshiva, and appointed its Rosh Yeshiva serving there until his death in 2000.  His commentary on Torah is fascinating.

Our  Torah portion this week is Pekudei.  Rabbi Shalom Noach comments on the verse, “Ki anan YHVH al hamishkan…bekhol mas’eihem…” which is translated “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33)

Rabbi Shalom Noach writes, “Rashi comments, ‘throughout their journeys’- ‘that is, all of their encampments; even the place of encampment is included in the term ‘journey’”. Even so, the simple sense of the text has to do with their travels, and we can apply this to our spiritual practice. The mystical tradition interprets the phrase, ‘They shall make Me a sanctuary so that I might dwell among them’(Ex. 25:8): the verse does not say “in it”, but “in them, in each and every one.” Thus, this constitutes an obligation of each Jew individually to sanctify the body and material being to become a sanctuary, a holy place fit for the indwelling of the Shekhinah….Regarding this, Scripture says “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire would appear in it by night,” suggesting divine protection over the Mishkan. Thus, for a Jew who sanctifies herself to become a Mishkan, the cloud of YHVH will rest on her by day, and fire in her at night.

When we read Rabbi Shalom Noach’s commentary, we see that the narrative of the Torah can be understood as the “journey” of the Jewish people toward G-d and toward home.  The historical narrative of our people ultimately comes to be applied to the life of each individual Jew. Even though Rabbi Shalom Noach embraces the historical narrative as the word of G-d, he also sees the words written in the Torah applying to every person in every time. 

You see, what is written in the past tense in the Torah text, must also be read as a narrative that is constantly recurring in the life of every Jew.  Just as the ancient Israelites journeyed, we today all pass through a variety of experiences, traveling from one place to another, from one stage to another, from one time to another, in the course of our lives.  Journeys have beginnings and endings, as do our lives. Journeys are best understood once we have concluded them; actually that is true throughout our lives as well.

Our Kabbalistic tradition reinterprets the course of our life journey.  Our mystical tradition examines the movement of our life journey from the day of birth backward, to the life of the soul before coming down into this world. Our mystical tradition teaches each soul corresponds to a particular body. It is specifically determined for this individual.  The right soul for the right person has a unique mission in this world.  Its journey in this world brings with it challenges, tests, and accomplishments, when finally this soul is ready for its return to its supernal home.        

Rabbi Shalom Noach, in interpreting this text of the Torah, inspires us with great hope; he promises that G-d will be present in times of clouded consciousness and spiritual darkness, for those who strive to make of themselves a Mishkan (tabernacle) for the Shekhina.   When we set our intention to become a sanctuary, we will be helped.

Rabbi Shalom Noach writes that in the course of our lives, “each of us passes through stages of ascent and descent.”  That’s life. The goal is not to stop life from happening, to have only ups without any downs.  Rather, it is to prepare us to meet whatever comes with the knowledge and belief that each one of us is a Mishkan, housing the Presence of G-d.  And each one of us, like the ancient Israelites, passes through a variety of experiences housing the Presence of G-d, as did the ancient Israelites. And even in bad times, we must recognize that G-d is present in the cloud and that we can make our way through the darkness.

`When we do this, we will never be confused, dispirited, discouraged, even by a terrible tragedy. Because, when we know that we house G-d within us, we also know that G-d is present, even “in the cloud.”  And we have the ability to make our way even through the darkness.  Furthermore, we can transform the darkness into light and “fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all of the house of Israel throughout their journeys.”

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary.

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