We have arrived at this central moment in our Shabbat morning service, this moment where, week after week, we undress and address the teachings of our sacred Torah scroll, our ancient lineage. To undress is to reveal; to address is to confront, to come into relationship with, and ultimately, to re-clothe in a new way. The great and amazing thing about our tradition is that our sages always knew and modeled for us that the true Torah is not only the words scribed on a scroll or printed on a page, but the ever-emergent conversation between us and those words and all the spaces in between!
This is the process we call midrash--seeking, understanding, imagining. When I can realize that all that the Torah contains—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is also present within me—at least the potential for it—then grappling with these stories, engaging with them, draws me into a deeper, richer, and more honest appreciation of my own gifts and potentials and failings. Each time we encounter Torah in community, a healing can occur, a redress, as we support one another to realize that the wisdom the words draws forth already lives in us; it is not something we have to learn, but something that can be awakened, remembered, called forth from deep within our psyches and our body memories, and ultimately healed. We can dream it together, in just the ways that are needed for this moment, and for each of us.
So where are we in our Torah story today, this Shabbat? With the double portion of Vayak’hel/Pekudei we arrive at the end of the book of Exodus. From where the people began, many weeks ago—go with me there, now—crushed in body and spirit by enslavement in Egypt, cut off from one another and their own deepest selves, groaning in pain and so “kotzer ruakh, so short of breath and spirit, that they are unable for a long time to receive the Divine message of redemption flowing through Moses, we arrive now at this auspicious moment—picture it: liberated into the fearful wildness, the midbar, they are set to embark on a great building project designed to forge them into a community. They are invited to bring all that they have and all that they are to the creation of a Mishkan, a Tabernacle which will be a kind of portable Mt. Sinai, with its own fire, smoke, and cloud–a sacred dwelling space that is meant to draw the Divine Presence into the midst of their community, and deep into their hearts, to accompany them in all their travels.
I invite you to awaken the memory of this momentous passage in our own body-mind-heart….to stand and take some space, or sit, to breathe, perhaps to remember some time in your own life when you felt constricted, filled with the fear that congeals in us when we are subject to misused power, perhaps you felt trapped, unable to breathe. What did that feel like in your body? Move with that feeling for a moment. Find your way into a whole-body gesture that expresses that feeling of constriction, of having no space and no options.
Now gently release into a neutral place for a moment. Breathe. Remember a time when you felt empowered, when your gifts were wanted and fully received. Feel the sense of openness, of eagerness, the generous heart that awakens when your offerings, your creativity are valued, are honored. How does that feel in your body, in your mind, in your spirit? Can you move with that feeling? Can you shape your body into a gesture that expresses that openness, generosity, connectedness, creativity, enthusiasm, and love?
Now, for a moment, return to your first body gesture and practice several times the transition between that and your second gesture. Get to know the path between them. Move around the room with your gestures—when you see someone in a constricted place can you soothe them with a gesture of giving, of love? When you are in the constricted shape, can you feel and respond to the balm of others’ loving offerings around you? When you're ready, you may find your way back to your seat.
Can you feel how beneath all the drama, the trauma of the Exodus journey, there lies this essential human movement, embodied day by day, moment by moment, sometimes breath by breath in our own lives, from constriction to expansion to constriction again, from connection to dejection to reconnection, from absence to presence, and then emptiness again—back and forth and back and forth? What provides some constancy, some ground for you, in the midst of all this movement?
Asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham, the Divine has spoken through Moses, so many chapters ago: “Build me a holy Sanctuary and I will dwell among them, with them, within them.” Constancy. Presence. In today’s parashah, we are seeing the fruits of that Divine imperative, given so many chapters ago, the minute details of its dimensions and materials and furnishings and the priestly garb reiterated four times in the Book of Exodus alone, occupying 13 of its 40 chapters. We have come to the moment to gather our resources, to contribute the materiel for this holy building project.
Sanctuary. In Torah this structure to be erected at the center of the Israelite encampment is referred to first as “mikdash,” “holy space,” later as “ohel moed,” “tent of meeting,” and finally as “mishkan,” often translated as tabernacle, but literally meaning, “dwelling place.” A dwelling place for Shekhinah, Divine Presence on earth, a place of safety and of celebration, of guidance, of healing, a gathering place for people, a resting place for the Divine in this world. How different is this Sanctuary from the sanctuaries we seek to create, to be, today—a space, a town, a country in which the contributions, the creative energies and enthusiasm of each inhabitant are valued and sought after to build a communal structure, a community with love, compassion, awareness, Presence at the center, like a polestar, a guiding light, ever visible? In our reading today of the building of the Mishkan, a dwelling space for Divine energies in this earthly realm, we along with the ancient Israelites, are called to re-member our worth and the worth of every person in our midst, to repurpose the hidden riches of our lives, so that we may become part of a sh’khunah, a true neighborhood (same Hebrew root), in which every soul is a valued co-creator of a holy, God-filled community that honors the resources, the creativity, and the wise heart of each of its individual members. The Mishkan project is so central in Torah because it comes to heal a broken people, to remind these newly freed slaves, and each one of us, of the need for Sanctuary at the heart of our camps, at the heart of our lives.
First Aliyah: Exodus 35:4-10
Our first Aliyah begins with Moses conveying to the people God’s spiritual imperative to bring trumah for the building of the Mishkan:
קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה לַיהֹוָה כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ – “Take from your self a portion and raise it up for YHVH, every one whose heart is inspired to give.” In other words, God says, “Go back to your tent, and dig up those stashes of gold, silver, copper that you just happened to bring out of Egypt, that yarn you’ve been meaning to knit into something cozy but never seem to get to, that old piece of fabric, that dolphin skin jacket you haven’t worn for years, that old jewelry, those mirrors and bring ‘em on down!” So the invitation for this aliyah is to recognize that what you’ve got hidden away in your closet is valuable. Not only the material items in your physical closets and garages, those things you’ve been meaning to take to Good Will (especially if they no longer make your heart sing) but the riches of your life experience, the painful passages you’ve endured, the illnesses, the heartache, the tears, your personal brushes with oppression and silencing and rejection. This is the moment to bring it forward, this portion from your self, to lift it up, and to know that what you might seem like the throwaways of your life are precious: they are gold, silver, copper, and jewels. Every hidden talent is wanted and life experience is needed for creation of the Sanctuary, a space that raises up and makes holy the whole community. Ta’amdu, ta’amdu, ta’amdu…. all who wish to make an offering of your deepest selves to build the holy communal space of our world.
Second Aliyah: Exodus 35:25-29
This next section of our text reinforces what was so strikingly evident in the last aliyah–that everyone in the community who is “wise of heart,” whose heart leaps forward, is to be enlisted in this grand building project—every woman and every man. Unlike many other parts of the Torah, where only the men are counted, the Mishkan project engages both women and men, the masculine and the feminine energies together to fulfill the Divine imperative to create vibrant and beautiful sacred space. No one rejected, everyone’s skill and inspiration included, regardless of gender, class, skin color—truly, the prototypical Revolutionary Love movement.
This aliyah will be to honor the women’s special offerings to the Mishkan, and in particular the women’s offering of their spinning. We read:
וְכָל־הַנָּשִׁים אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂא לִבָּן אֹתָנָה בְּחָכְמָה טָווּ אֶת־הָעִזִּים, “every woman whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the wool.” These are the threads which will be woven into fabric to create the “skin” of the Mishkan, its coverings, and the elaborate garments of the high priest. You may know that the drop spindle is one of the human oldest tools, appearing somewhere the mists of pre-history, more than 7,000 years ago. With it, women spun fibers of cotton, flax, goat and sheep hairs into tough, resilient threads. Spinning was a ubiquitous activity in ancient cultures, time-consuming labor needed to produce the yarn to weave the fabrics for clothing and shelter. Everywhere women went and whatever else they were doing—walking, nursing a baby, gathering herbs, preparing food—they carried their spindles, looking like large wooden dreidls, to work bundles of raw flax and wool into yarn—perhaps the first instance of women’s multi-tasking! The Israelite women, the midrash teaches, were so eager to create the threads for fabrics of the Mishkan, that they didn’t even wait for the goats and sheep to be sheared, but miraculously spun the hairs into yarn while they were still on the animals!
This aliyah honors the countless generations of women—our mothers, and grandmothers, our great and great-great grandmothers—who spent their lives immersed in the constant, nearly invisible work, the melakhah, of spinning, sewing, weaving, knitting, embroidering, crocheting, quilting—not only yarns and fabrics, but families, communities, and cultures. We honor all the ways that we women gather and comb and smooth the raw materials of our own lives, and those of families, our friends, our students, and clients, patiently twisting and strengthening and integrating to create the strong, vibrant and beautiful fabrics that we call “home,” “workplace,” “dwelling space,” “mishkan.” Ta’amdu, ta’amdu, ta’amdu, all who honor and all who are the spinners and weavers of lives….
Third Aliyah: Exodus 40:33-38
Our final aliyah takes us to the very end of the book of Exodus, the culminating moment, when Moses has actually erected the Mishkan, according to Divine specifications, and with the contributions of all the people, and the anan, the cloud that has been guiding the people ever since they left Egypt, descends on the ohel moed, the outer part of the structure and “ כְב֣וֹד יְהֹוָ֔ה מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּן ” “the Presence of Beingness (Was-Is-Will-be) fills the Mishkan, the inner precincts, the Holy of Holies. The movement of this Presence will later come to be known as Shekhinah, that aspect of Divinity that accompanies us on all our journeys, that is present in all of Creation, that is, as some mystics teach us, the material world itself. The text tells us, “When the cloud would rise up from upon the Tabernacle, then the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeyings. But if the cloud did not rise up, then they would not embark, until the day it rose up.” This aliyah is for those who wish to invite a more profound level of Divine guidance into our lives, to know in our very bones, that we are not moving alone, that the love we have poured into creating and sustaining the structures, the mishkanim of our lives, is the Divine made manifest, and that we can trust its guidance to come through our intuitions and our dreams and our everyday moments, if we will but turn our eyes and our wise hearts in its direction. Ta’amdu, ta’amdu, ta’amdu, all who seek to open to receiving Spirit’s Presence in all our journeyings….