Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why You Can't Be Jewish Alone - Wednesday Kavvanah, 2/22/2012

When I was in my mid-twenties and still working as an engineer, I moved to Houston to take a new job, arriving not long before Pesah.  I knew next to nobody, had not yet joined a synagogue, and could not fly back to my parents for sedarim, so I did nothing.  No Four Questions, no plagues, no fun songs.  I ate matzah alone.  It was the most miserable holiday of my life. 

A fundamental characteristic of Judaism is that it requires community - family, friends, even strangers.  Unlike those spiritual traditions that emphasize one's individual path, Jewish living requires participation with others to be done properly.  We read this week in Parashat Terumah:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם
Ve'asu li miqdash veshakhanti betokham
Build me a holy place and I will dwell among them. (Deuteronomy 25:8)

God, of course, speaks in the singular (almost always the case in the Torah).  The references to God's partners here in building the mishkan (the portable Temple-like structure for sacrificing to God while the Israelites were wandering in the desert) are plural: the builders who are being commanded, and those among whom God will dwell.  This is a departure from elsewhere in the Torah, particularly the Decalogue, where God speaks as if to an individual. 

The message is clear: this first act to be executed after the covenant at Sinai, the building of this holy place, is to be understood as the cornerstone of the community.  You (plural) shall build it together, and I will reside with you as a people.  And the same principle is still in play today: we make holy moments together, we celebrate together, we grieve together.  God dwells among us when we join hands, hearts, and minds.

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