The Torah reading this week gives the instructions for building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a portable sanctuary (i.e .spiritual center) in the midst of the desert; it was the place where the Divine Presence would rest wherever the Jews happened to be. They took it with them throughout their 40 year stay in the desert and rebuilt it in four different locations in the Land of Israel. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, it was buried in the earth below. The Jews fought many wars to take hold of the Land of Israel, how is it that among the various causalities, the Mishkan was never destroyed or damaged? According to tradition, since it was built with pure intent, it was never destroyed.
One of the crucial materials needed for construction of the Mishkan was wood, but where did they find lumber in the middle of the desert? Hundreds of years earlier, Jacob had known about the future Egyptian captivity but he also knew that they would be freed and journey through a desert without water or vegetation. According to the Midrash, he made provisions for that journey during his lifetime by planting acacia trees in Egypt. Before the Exodus, they cut these trees down and transported them intothe desert for use in the construction of the Mishkan, their portable spiritual center.
Now that we know where they got the wood, another question must be asked: if Jacob knew his descendants were going to travel through a lifeless desert, he also must have realized that G-d would provide for their needs-food and drink-as well as protection. If so, it stands to reason that He would also provide them with wood to make a sanctuary. Why then did Jacob have to plant acacia trees in Egypt to take care of their future construction needs, wouldn’t G-d take care of that?
The Mishkan wasn’t just a physical house for the Divine Presence, it was also meant to symbolize the spiritual abode each Jew constructed in his/her own heart in which the Almighty would dwell. In the ancient world of idolatry as well as some religions that followed later, people would visit the temples to pay their respects to the gods and then return home to their private lives. This dichotomy isn’t a Jewish concept. For us, the Almighty’s presence isn’t restricted to a building-Mishkan-a temple to be visited and left behind. The construction of the physical Tabernacle was a symbolic expression of the desire of the people to be connected and have a relationship with G-d and to build an indestructible temple in their own hearts for Him.
Now we can understand why they had to bring their own wood from Egypt. When constructing a portable sanctuary, one that symbolized a deep relationship, not just a drive through spiritual experience but a meaningful life enriching bond, it needed to come entirely from the Jewish people. It was an offer to invite G-d to come among us. G-d can do anything, including sustaining the people in the desert for forty years, but it is the people who seek the relationship with Him that need to demonstrate it-for themselves as well as for Him. The following parable illustrates this point.
A highly successful entrepreneurial woman owned a chain of flower shops and had just accepted her beloved’s proposal for marriage. The evening of the engagement party arrived and the excited bride awaited her groom. When he arrived, looking handsome in his new suit, he began striding purposefully toward her. He was smiling from ear to ear but she noticed that his hands were empty.
“No roses?” she asked.
“Why would I bring you roses,” With tears streaming down her face, she said “don’t I deserve flowers like any other bride.”
“But you are not like any other bride,” said the groom. “You own a chain of flower shops. Giving you roses would be like giving ice to an Eskimo!”
“My love, you have much to learn. It’s not about my need. Do you think grooms bring flowers to their brides because they need them? Flowers help grooms express their love for their brides. I too want that expression of love, even though I’ve got plenty of flowers of my own.”
G-d has everything but the Jews needed to demonstrate that they chose to have a relationship with Him. When I speak with Jews about Judaism, the most stated comment is, “this is the first time I’m hearing about having a relationship with G-d.” Why is it that Jews, the people who brought monotheism to the world, view G-d and how to relate to Him as a distant and irrelevant concept in their daily lives? Many Jews view being Jewish as a sort of disease, with the following symptoms: when a baby is born, if it’s a boy is born, a ritual specialist must be called to perform a circumcision. When a child gets older, s/he has to spend torturous years in Hebrew school to ultimately learn how to memorize foreign letters and liturgical music for a meaningless ceremony called a bar or bat Mitzvah. When a couple gets married, they have to call a rabbi when; the rabbi must also be called when someone dies. Another symptom of the disease is that I have to sit through a long and boring service based on texts in a foreign, ancient, and strange, Semitic language once or twice a year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Being Jewish means having to do a bunch of stuff I don’t understand.
Unfortunately, that’s a summary of Judaism for many people and it explains why when our children ask why they have to do one of the above symptoms of the disease, the response is “because that’s what I did.” No joy, feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, no intellectual pursuit-no rejoicing or pride in being Jewish. It’s no wonder that young and middle aged people aren’t too enthusiastic about being Jewish.
Just like the groom in our parable as well as the Jews bringing wood from Egypt, if we want to find meaning in being Jewish, we must make some effort and demonstrate that we want it. Even Jews who are observant sometimes find themselves slipping into a mechanical and perfunctory observance of the Torah and acting more out of habit than out of inspiration. At such times, we would do well to look into our inner selves and inspect the temples in our hearts, which might have fallen into neglect.
What do we do when Judaism loses its meaning for us; when our Jewish “roof” springs a leak or its “walls” are in need of repair? The patch-up begins with making an effort-coming to a class, having a discussion with a rabbi or friend who is actually excited or motivated with his or her Judaism. It involves attaching oneself to a nation that has withstood the test of time for thousands of years and all without a land, language, or army. The Torah’s ideals have been the inspiration for global social welfare for centuries as well the foundation for American democracy. Judaism isn’t a disease, it’s a beautiful gift. Isn’t it worth a small effort to access it?