Rabbi David Walk
Reporting from Israel. I'm on the eighth grade Israel trip for Bi-Cultural Day School, Stamford, Connecticut, and it's been fabulous, both the country and the kids. But there's one theme which has been following me throughout the trip. The concept first arose Shabbat Yitro when we davened at a B'nei Akiva youth center in Safed. There was a sign on the wall with the following famous quote from Rebbe Nachman M'Breslov (who's also the Reb Nachman M'Uman, because that's where he's buried.): The universe is just a huge human; a human is the microcosm of the universe. So, what's the theme which like a catchy tune, I can't get out of my head? Spirituality is the interface between me and the rest of Creation. When I feel this connection to everything else in existence, I have achieved a very holy state. Israel is a great place for feeling this connection, as we'll see. However, I'm writing about his topic at this time, because this week's Torah reading is about building the Mishkan (portable Temple), whose purpose was to help make this connection.
There's much discussion in our authorities about the meaning or symbolism of this edifice and all its furnishings. In general these scholars fall into two groups. One team claims that the Temple was a concession to human weakness, because the sin of the Golden Calf proved that our ancestors weren't ready to worship totally abstract ideas (as opposed to sophisticated us). The other side believes that the Temple is an eternal symbol which describes the relationship between heaven and earth, holy and mundane. Both groups agree that the Temple is a pedagogic device to help us connect with God, but the mystics do it with more passion. Even the normally rational Don Isaac Abarbenel (15th century Spain) explains: Making the Mishkan 'exactly as God shows you' informs us that the Mishkan and all its furnishings are allusions to the world and all its parts, thereby showing Moshe all the secrets of existence and how it is ordered.
According to the Midrash, Moshe found this idea very difficult. How can all the amazing celestial beings and patterns be represented in earthly forms? God answered his complaints by instructing: Make it (the ark) of acacia wood two and half cubits long...How does this answer Moshe's legitimate question? God is instructing us that following the Divine command to the best of our ability somehow works to make us feel the spirit. Maybe it's Godly help or perhaps our best efforts resonate within the performer of the task. In any case there is purpose and even a sense of accomplishment in precisely fulfilling God's detailed instructions.
All of these ideas are weighing on my mind during this trip, or, more correctly, pilgrimage to Israel. I have always felt a certain ambivalence towards many holy sites, especially the Kotel (Western Wall). First of all, this impressive structure was merely a retaining wall around the Temple Mount, built by the not so great King Herod. It's not the only remnant of this structure. We have extensive eastern, southern and northern walls. Our sentimental attachment to this not so holy masonry is, I believe, based upon the many centuries in which we used these exposed stones as a reminder of the Temple's former glory. The millions of prayers, tears and notes have made these rocks special. I remember in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik refused to participate in any celebrations, because hundreds of our young men had been killed during this miraculous victory. But I was blown away when the Rav said that the Kotel wasn't worth the blood of even one of those precious souls. So, even though I tear my shirt there, pray in its shadow, and have placed thousands of notes in its cracks and crevices, I've always been a bit conflicted about the Wall's place in our tradition and in my heart.
To a certain extent my feelings have evolved during this trip. This past Friday night we went to daven at the Kotel. We arrived a little late, because we had said the afternoon prayers in our hotel. When we looked over the plaza from the stairs by Aish Hatorah, it was an awesome sight. Perhaps 20,000 people were praying, swaying and dancing within the prayer sections, and many thousands more were milling around towards the back of the area. We pushed our way to a section where there was a group of soldiers who were singing and dancing their way through the Kabbalat Shabbat hymns. Even though there was no room, we were welcomed to join in. That was fun. A few minutes later, when I had finished my own amidah prayer, I looked back at the hundreds of soldiers.continuing their prayers. Most had their eyes closed, all faces were turned upwards to the Wall, and their expressions are best described as enraptured. I couldn't hold back a few tears.
The next morning fourteen of my precious young people joined me at 5:30 AM, to pray at the wall with sunrise. This custom is called vatikin. All these 8th graders got up on their own. Not for the big game or a mega-star, but to pray at our people's holiest shrine. And I don't think that they were disappointed. At precisely 6:20 AM the many minyaniim at the Wall went silent in unison. The only sound left was the flapping of wings from the birds above. One student last year said that they were carrying our prayers heavenward.
Look, I don't know the underlying meanings of all the stuff discussed in this week's parsha. But so many of the remnants of these places continue to move us to higher spiritual heights, that who am I to get picky on the details? All I know is that the verse 'Build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you,' seems to mean that if you build it, God will come. And it continues to work its magic.
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