I May Dwell Among Them

And God said the Moses, ‘Say to the Israelite people: You are a stiff-necked people.  If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now then, humble yourselves, and I will consider what to do with you.’ So they did.

And Moses set up the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. God would speak with Moses there face to face, as one person speaks to another. And Moses said, “God, if I have gained your favor, let me know you, let me see your ways, so that I may continue in Your favor.  O, let me behold Your presence. (Ex 33:5-18)

Moses is standing right in front of God, they are ‘face to face,’ in a way no other human has ever been. And even then, Moses finds God ultimately unknowable. In this week’s Torah portion God says, “Let them build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
We conclude that God lives in the Tent of Meeting, in the sanctuary.  Want to know God? Just head on down to your local tabernacle and find God there. But of course, this must be metaphor, as God reminds Moses a few verses later – no one may see Me and live. God says – I will let my goodness and my mercy pass before you, and you will only know Me in their wake. Now that’s a metaphor!

God doesn’t actually live IN the sanctuary – let them build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. The plural suggests that God lives in the hearts and minds of the people – among them – once they have created this symbolic space to focus on the Divine. This is how I read the opening verse – in response to this stiff-necked people, God says, ‘if I were to go into your midst for even one moment I would destroy you.’ I can approach you only in metaphor, through symbols.

Tonight we gather in our own, very symbolic heart of the community – this sanctuary.  It has been quite a while for some of us.  Our concerns for the well-being of every member of our extended IHC family have kept us away, turning to technology to bridge the distance we have felt so acutely. In that sense we are grateful for both the ability to be here tonight with some, and for the technology that brings all of you a bit closer to this sacred space.

I love the way Moses pleads with God to see more clearly, know more fully, feel less distance, even in this most intimate of moments between humanity and the Divine. Moses is expressing the sincere wish of every open heart. It is the desire we all know, living our own individual lives, to reach out across the lonely expanse and really know someone else, another – another human being, which in turn helps us to know the ultimate other, which is God.

The 20th century philosopher Emmanual Levinas put it this way: To see into the soul of another human being, to really look in their face, is to recognize the need behind it.  To recognize another is to feel compelled to give to that other, to meet the need. And giving to another person in need, he argues, is to give to the ultimate Other, the master, to God – the One who we approach as the Holy One, to One who provides, the One On High.

Levinas argues that to be a human being is to feel alone, and often lonely. It is our existential state. Any chance we get, therefore, to connect with another human being is something sacred – a reaching out across time and space, a way to bind our soul with the ultimately unknowable soul of another person.

So many of you have reached out for support in finding our way through the isolation of quarantine in the past many months. This has been a really long and difficult time.  In my house we stopped counting the number of missed life experiences. I don’t know that we will ever feel fully comfortable that this pandemic is behind us. Something has changed in society that may be permanent. But what has only grow stronger has been our desire to see one another, pray with and for one another, bake hamentaschen with one another, sing and socialize and maybe even dance with one another here, in our home. Our sanctuary has always been for us, a place of comfort, of belonging, of learning, a place of Tikkun – healing.

In my acting life before the rabbinate, I remember a specific moment when I had to choose to pursue a training program that would prepare me either for the stage or for film and TV.  I knew two things – if I wanted to actually work, I would be much better off following the lead of many friends who had made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles and ended up in commercials and student films, waiting to be discovered. Stage work is much harder to find, especially for regional actors not interested in the Great White Way.

But I also knew I had no interest in the screen. My reasons were the same as my reasons now for needing to see you in person, needing us to be in the same place for Shabbat. Performing in a play involves the audience – they are living, breathing participants in an active dialogue with those on stage. The theorist and director Peter Brook put it this way, “Drama is exposure; it is confrontation; and it leads to analysis, construction, recognition, and eventually understanding… The purpose of theatre is…making an event in which a group of fragments are suddenly brought together, and for a certain time [that group] can rediscover the marvel of organic life… the marvel of being one.” (The Empty Space)

We are taught to honor Shabbat, to remember Shabbat and to keep it holy.  Shabbat offers us a glimpse into the greatest mystery of the universe – that is, why are we here? We can only do this work – exposure, confrontation – when we sit together in these pews.  We only inspire one another – construction, recognition – when we see one another panim el panim, face to face, and see the need each of us carry with us behind our face. Shabbat only truly enters the room with the understanding we embrace each week that we are one people, we are responsible for one another, we are independent fragments suddenly brought together to marvel at life – to remind ourselves that we are One.