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When I officiate weddings, I teach the couple that their rings are talismans, touchstones to remember this day, how much they love each other at this moment. I hope that they will remember to touch them later, in times of trouble, and use their rings to remind them of the love that is present, underneath whatever else has happened.
I learned that lesson from a couple Irnie Nadler married, who came to me to help them renew their vows after they had removed their rings and finally wanted to put them back on. He told them to save the wine from their blessings. It was still good 18 years later. And they had remembered what he had told them, and used that knowledge to repair their marriage.
We all have mementos or photos or touchstones that remind us of events and experiences—vacations we loved, bar mitzvahs, graduations. But the best reminders are not just about memory: they are about doing something with the memory, like this couple did.
Our seder plates are like that. The maror we eat reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, not just for tradition’s sake, but so that we should stand up against slavery wherever we find it today.
The green ribbons many people are wearing currently remind us of the tragedy in Newtown, spurring us to work to make gun violence less frequent.
This week’s torah portion Terumah, in the midst of Shemot/Exodus, describes one of the best examples of this kind of physical reminder of an nonphysical experience.
Ex. 25:1 Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: 2Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.
Then the torah goes on to describe the gifts we are to bring, items we took from the Egyptians on our way out of slavery:
3gold, silver, and copper; 4blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; 5tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; 6oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; 7lapis lazuli and other stones for setting.
And when we give what the Great Architect suggests, Moses hears:
V’Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham
8And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
This five word verse is quite complex: Let THEM make a sanctuary for Me that I might dwell among THEM. One would have thought that we would build it and the Holy One would live in IT, not in US. “Them” has to be us. We build it and we carry the Divine within US.
This sentence contains two other really important words. V’asu li Mikdash—Mikdash is from the the same root as kiddush, kiddushin, kaddish, kedusha: words that have to do with holiness, sanctity, and separation. Often we refer to the portable building as the mishkan or tabernacle (the English word is from the Latin for hut or stall, fyi).
At the start of this building process, when the design is introduced to us, in its first mention, it is described as a mikdash, a sanctuary, a sacred place. It is a very large, very expansive, very ornate touchstone to help anchor us to our intense experience of holiness at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when our senses turned inside out and upside down, we heard lightning and saw thunder. This sanctuary’s purpose is to keep us in touch with that moment when we heard the 10 commandments for the first time and promised to follow them.
The next important word is the very next word: V’shachanti – And I will dwell/live/sit… this is another rich word. The first time it appears in the bible—generally an important moment—is in the beginning of Breisheit when we are evicted Gan Eden. God causes a keruv to stand – a keruv is not the Valentine’s Day cherubs, but a winged creature of great power– God stations the keruv v’yashkhen with a fiery sword blocking our return (Gen. 3:24). And the most common name for this portable reminder is mishkan a dwelling place. Only a few verses after we are told to make this mikdash, God tells Moses it will contain two keruvim of gold, which will stand within the Holy of Holies, guarding the tablets of testimony. Indeed another word for our holy ark protecting our torahs is mishkan, the sanctuary that contains the quintessential reminder of that day at the mountain, and its purpose is to take us back to the garden.
This one brief verse is loaded with important spiritual concepts: if WE make this sanctuary, this holy place, then God will dwell among US. Or within us, as the preposition b’ could mean in, within, to, among. Surrounded as the verse is by detailed descriptions of the building and decorating plans, it contains a very brief metaphysical idea. If you create this THING, you will carry within you the presence of divinity. As though somehow it will fire up the divine spark that we were created with. The mishkan or mikdash will be the reminder that we are meant for better things, that we should remember, even when times get tough, that we once made this covenant because we once experienced such a wave of spiritual power.
Just as the maror on the seder is not just a reminder of bitterness past, but a spur to action future, so is the mishkan—once the portable building we carried through the wilderness, now the remaining wall in Jerusalem, or the thousands of shul walls around the world, including ours here, all of these structures are reminders that the world is not perfect yet, and that we still have work to do, partnerships to build, hatreds to break down, people to feed, suffering to ameliorate, creatures of creation to celebrate…
I weep that the temple wall in Jerusalem has become the site of anger and arrests, where one stream of Judaism controls how Jews in other streams pray, what they wear when they pray, how loud their voices can be. If the mikdash/mishkan serves to remind us of the moment when we formed a covenant with spiritual power, then it cannot be a site of oppression.
When we view the mishkan and its follow up, the temple, as a touchstone or anchor to remind us of our most holy moments, then we should be using it in holy ways. Just as two married people can use their wedding rings to point them back to the time when love was pure, unspoiled by hurts, so can we use the temple to point us in that direction.
What do you use as touchstones to remember how to behave, how to act, how to treat the people you love and the community you live in?