Bringing Heaven to Earth

March 9th: Vayak’hel and Pekude
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

I often get a sense of déjà vu when I read one of the passages as this week’s portion begins:“Moses said to the whole community of Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring these gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other fine stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35.4-9)
Didn’t we already read this—back in Exodus 24, three weeks ago?!

Well, yes, we did read pretty much the same words. However, the Exodus 24 version is God talking to Moses—beginning the very long, very detailed instructions for the Mishkan, while this week gives us Moses down from Mount Sinai and conveying the instructions to the children of Israel. It’s what we could call “follow through.” It is one thing to hear instructions; it is another thing entirely to follow them. The Israelites certainly follow through, responding so enthusiastically with the requested donations that Moses has to stop them. They bring more than enough! Then, Betzalel and the other artisans get to work and follow God’s instructions precisely. The project is diligently completed, and the result is all that God and the Israelites hope it would be: God has a place to dwell in our midst. “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40.34)

Though none of us have had an experience like that of Moses up on Mount Sinai—or of the Israelites in all of the miracles of the Exodus, I suspect that we have had our moments of inspiration—moments when we realized important paths to pursue. Sometimes, we follow through on these compelling ideas. Sometimes, they remain in our aspirations—as theoretical but unfulfilled possibilities. Of course, we cannot pursue every great idea or right every wrong. And, sometimes, our great insights turn out to be unrealistic or temporarily impossible. However, a mark of a successful life is our ability to take advantage of the revelations we are given and to move toward the goodness we can sometimes glimpse. This story of Moses and the Children of Israel following through and making the revelation real should be a reminder that we too are called by God and charged with making a difference in this world.

Apropos to this reminder, let me share three pieces. One is from our synagogue’s foyer and is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson—inscribed in memory of Denise Ziff:
 “To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and
the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and
to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

The second is a piece by Rabbi Chaim Stern, using a number of quotations from the Psalms, the Prophets, Pirke Avot, and the Talmud.
“We live in two worlds: the one that is, and the one that might be.
Nothing is ordained for us: neither delight nor defeat, neither peace nor war.
Life flows, and we must freely choose. We can, if we will, change the world that is,
into the world that may come to be, as we were taught from of old:
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it,
Loving all human beings, and bringing them to the Torah.
The whole Torah exists only to bring peace, as it is written:
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Let justice dwell in the wilderness, righteousness in the fruitful field.
For righteousness shall lead to peace; it shall bring quietness and confidence for ever.
Then all shall sit under their vines and under their fig-trees, and none shall make them afraid. 

(Gates of Prayer, page 216)

The third is a meditation on God’s Name and our role in making it great. It is in our congregational prayer book, Siddur B’rit Shalom on page 70.
“The Aramaic term שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא Sh’may d’Kud’sha means “God’s Holy Name,”
but it can also mean “God’s Reputation,” and thus does it reflect a particular Divine
vulnerability. God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s
people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience,
but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways.
Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts.
Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner
can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.”

Let us treasure those moments when we see something useful and important—and that we can do. And, let us endeavor to make our contributions to the World That May Come To Be.