Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pekudei - The Beauty of Teshuvah

In the opening verse of the Torah reading the completed Sanctuary is referred to as a “mishkan edut”- the dwelling place of testimony. To what idea, object, event or other reality does this structure attest to? What makes this paricular structure a spiritually significant one? One obvious answer is related to the need for creating a sacred space in which the Israelite can experience God's presence.

Another interpretation offered by the Sefat Emet speaks to the nature of God's presence that one can experience in a tangibly spiritual way. For the Sefat Emet, as in the opinion of other commentators, the erection of the Sanctuary represents a profound opportunity for Israel to atone for and undo the transgression of fashioning the Golden Calf. The testimony inherent in the “mishkan”is to the inner capacity of the Israelite to transform himself, to restore herself to her innately unblemished self and recapture the goodness and holiness that reside deep within the person's soul. Israel sinned because of the negative influences of the “mixed multitude” that led her astray. Without the external interferences of other contaminating cultures, left to her own spiritual devices and following her intrinsic nature, Israel would flower into a state of utter purity and sanctity.The sanctuary attests to Israel's innate destiny as an on-going witness to God's Presence in the world. This spiritual vocation is an essential and inescapable part of who Israel is.

We read: "Why did they need this witness, ( the Sanctuary)? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin(the Golden Calf). Now God gave the people the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that they had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin....Israel are God's witnesses as it is written 'You are My witnesses'(Isaiah 43:12). But how is it possible that Israel...could worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by the 'mixed multitude'...The rabbis teach in fact that 'Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach the way of teshuvah.”(The Language of Truth,trans.and interpr. by Arthur Green, JPS, 1998,pp.141)

The Sefat Emet posits a spiritual understanding of the Jewish people as possessing an inner goodness and holiness that can never be entirely erradicated. The waywardness of Israel, their distance from God is temporary, an aberration, not an expression of authentic Jewish self-identification.

The soul is pure and yearns to unfold as an instrument of drawing closer to the Divine source in all its undertakings. Teshuvah, return, suggests the need and ability to facilitate a process of redicscovery and restoration of one's authentic spiritual self, a reality that is deeply desired by the fragmented and frightened heart. Each time the Israelite worshipped in this Sanctuary, she was reminded of her essence, of her task as a witness to the reality of God's Presence in the world.

Characteristic of the Hassidic view of the spiritual life, the way to improvement and to God Himself was not the emphasis on the negative, the guilt-inducing process by which the individual experiences great pain and harshness of self- judgment but rather the loving and forgiving response of God and man. The path to the divine is not conditioned by harsh, demeaning criticism but is paved by compassion and the embrace of human understanding and sensitivity.

If we understand the Mishkan as the prototype of all sacred spaces ie.synagogues, shuls, temples etc. then the above interpretation clearly delineates the purpose of these houses of worship, these sacred spaces and what they should signify and the role they should play in Jewish life. In the same way the original dwelling place of testimony reflected God's acceptance of Israel as His witnesses, in spite of their temporary sinfulness, and represented Israel's innate goodness and the beauty and efficacy of teshuvah, likewise if our contemporary places of sanctity are to emulate the mishkan's unique spiritual function they must adhere to the standards of God which point out Israel's essential purity and goodness, and the unending and pervasive availability of teshuvah to prevent any despair or surrender of Israel's self-awareness as God's witnesses.Thus the work of the synagogue is to reinforce and enhance this piritual identity of the Jewish people, to help those who are estranged not feel guilty but reassured and loved that their holy task is to be witness to God's reality in this world. A synagogue that fails to meet this religious expectation, misses its mark as an authentic mishkan edut, a dwelling place of testimony.

Shabbat Shalom

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