Scenes from the Infrastructure of Religion

March 11th: Pekude
Scenes from the Infrastructure of Religion
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The following story is told of the late Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank:  

Reb David was ordained as a Chabad rabbi and specialized in working with young Jews who had strayed into Buddhism and Hinduism. He was able to convince many to return to Judaism. One day, he got a call from a mother who was desperate for her son to become Jewish again, and Reb David set out for the Zen monastery where the young man lived. As it turned out, the former Jew was no neophyte in Buddhism. He had been practicing it for a long time, and he was now the head of the monastery! The two spiritual teachers spoke of many things, but finally it got down to idolatry. How, Reb David protested, could a Jew practice the idolatry of bowing down before statues of the Buddha and praying to them? The Zen teacher explained that statues were not idols, and he proceeded to pick up a Buddha statue and toss it out the window. He then asked Reb David why Jews make the Torah an idol and bow to it. This question really challenged Reb David, and he began to doubt his own faith. He ended up leaving Lubavitch and entering Zen Buddhism.

A few years later, he happened to see a procession of Jews carrying their Sefer Torah from the synagogue to the Sofer, the Scribe who would fix the scroll and make sure all the letters were intact and distinct. They held their Sefer Torah with great affection and respect and with great feeling handed it over to the Sofer who received it and promised to take good care of their holy possession. The former Reb David noted this and thought about the idolatry they did not realize they were practicing. After the congregants left and returned to their daily routines, Reb David looked in through the window of the Sofer and saw something quite surprising. Though the Scribe had reverentially received the Sefer Torah from the congregants, he now unceremoniously plopped it onto a table filled with other scrolls waiting to be repaired. Reb David realized the difference between respect and idolatry—that our Torahs are not idols, and he returned to Judaism. He became a disciple of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Jewish Renewal and a great and beloved teacher.

I was reminded of this story when I was visiting Safed, the city in northern Israel known for its mystical tradition. In the studio of photographer Yaacov Kaszenmacher, I saw a piece with a whole bunch of Torahs stacked on top of each other. I had to ask what it was, and here is what he told me. He was walking around in Safed one day and chanced into a synagogue while they were cleaning the Aron Hakodesh (the Holy Ark). They took all the Torah Scrolls out so they could go to work with cleaning supplies. They needed a place to put the scrolls, and a table seemed a good and safe spot. As holy as the Torah and the Ark are, they are physical items that need cleaning and maintenance. The spiritual value is paramount, but the physicality and practicality is necessary in order for the spiritual to be presented. (You can see this photograph in my office.)

In any spiritual endeavor, a lot of behind-the-scenes activity is necessary to keep things operating. In the case of our synagogue, there is much to do, and our whole religious enterprise depends on the officers and volunteers and employees who devote themselves to making sure that this holy place is open and ready for (holy) business.

I know all this from the Jewish perspective, but several years ago, I got a glimpse of the workings of another religion’s infrastructure. I was attending a funeral at an Episcopal Church, and it was extremely crowded—standing room only! In fact, the crowd had spilled out of the sanctuary into vestibules and storage rooms. I found myself in a group huddled in a side room with a bunch of cabinets. At one point in the service, they ran out of wafers and wine for communion, and they had to hurry through the crowd into this little storage room to get more Eucharistic materials. So, in addition to mourning for the deceased and trying to feel the holiness of the Christian service, I also found out that they kept their communion wafers in Rubbermaid plastic containers and that they used Gallo wine in half gallon bottles. In order for the spiritual to take place, practical matters needed attention.

Our Torah portion this week gives us a glimpse of the ancient religious infrastructure. While the portion concludes with the Presence of God coming down and filling the Mishkan, the bulk of the portion tells about crafting the tent, its furniture and utensils, and the uniforms for Aaron and his sons. The final chapter has Moses personally assembling the Tabernacle, “placing its sockets, setting up its planks, inserting its bars, and erecting its posts…spreading the tent over the Tabernacle, placing the covering of the tent on top of it.” He puts the Ten Commandments (both sets) into the Ark of the Covenant and sets up the Menorah and the table with the showbread. It’s all got to be done—physically, and the stretching and straining and lifting and maybe even jamming his finger or scraping his arm are all necessary for the holiness to take place later. Indeed, this physical labor is holy itself because it is part of the holy process.

These k’lay kodesh (holy vessels/utensils/tools) Moses assembles and arranges have a dual quality—being both holy and practical. At some level, their ceremonial role has to be temporarily suspended as the physical functioning is addressed. Sacred silver needs polishing. The Menorah needs to be cleaned out and filled with oil. Aaron’s vestments need to be brushed and inspected. And yet, there is also an ambiance of holiness when doing this physical labor.

When we work with our k’lay kodesh—doing the things necessary to provide and maintain our synagogue, we can share in the holiness of Moses and the Levites who made the Mishkan ready for God’s entrance.