The last thing I imagined to find when I moved to Mississippi? A tabernacle.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the Mishkan, the encampment the Israelites set up in the while wandering in the desert, the physical space where God dwelled among them. But I never thought I would see a life-size replica… let alone in Pearl, Mississippi.
I read about it online, and was immediately tempted to go see it—but I also felt a bit strange about the fact that this “life-size replica of the Mosaic Sanctuary that God gave instructions to Moses to build in the wilderness” was constructed by a Seventh-day Adventist organization. I wondered what the agenda might be, as the group travels with the tabernacle across the nation.
But my curiosity got the best of me. And so I went to see the Mishkan.
Located in the middle of a large open field, next to a church in Pearl, Mississippi, sat several large tents. Two kind older women welcomed me and handed me an admission ticket that read “tribe of Benjamin.” My father’s Hebrew name, I observed silently. The women asked me why I was in Jackson, where I worked and I told them about the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish, I realized I was a bit uncomfortable. Was I coming here “as a Jew”? Was I walking in as a student of religious studies?
Either way, I was probably not their intended audience.
Our tour guide began by explaining the history of the Temple, and Jewish worship at the Temple. I was impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge. He had a lot of dates and important figures memorized, and his information seemed consistent with what I learned in my Jewish day school education.
We walked into the tent, stopping to look at the altar made of “brass” (or plastic spray-painted to look like brass). An unfortunate plush-toy sheep was awaiting a demonstration. The guide explained to us the process of sacrifice, starting with the sin, and ending with the fats and innards burnt on the altar. He shared all the information I was familiar with, but his interpretation was different: for the tour guide in the church’s re-created tabernacle, every part of the sacrifice and worship to God somehow connected to Jesus’ ministry.
We made our way through the tabernacle, beginning from the least holy spot to the most—the Holy of Holies.
Inside the Holy of Holies sat items I knew were supposedly there, but had never pictured. This was perhaps the most interesting thing for me; to see things like manna and Aaron’s staff, depicted in material terms. Manna is something I’ve always learned about as maybe bread, or maybe grain, but definitely heavenly, other-worldly. To see it in a bowl, so obviously of this world, was confusing. Some of the mystery, the ineffable quality was lost.
Perhaps the most jarring interpretation of all: the tour ended in a tent where the High Priest was dressed in a breastplate—and instead of pomegranates and bells around the bottom of his frock, instead Christmas ornaments dangled from the garment.
It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. I left this Mishkan feeling confused, but also full of pride. Though our religions look very different today, the Christians who created this tabernacle share many of the same historical roots that connect me to my faith. For my tour guide, the Mishkan was an extraordinary thing that led the way for Jesus’ salvation. For me, it was something that helped shape my people, as a people. Christianity and Judaism both changed drastically over the years, and neither look much like the religion practiced in the desert for 40 years—but both still find meaning in memories and experiences of the Mishkan.
There’s one page I follow obsessively on Facebook: Humans of New York.
Brandon, the photographer and author behind HONY, approaches total strangers, takes their photos, and asks questions that are often incredibly personal. He doesn’t wait for strangers to approach and share their stories, instead he openly investigates and uplifts voices otherwise overlooked.
I’ve been following HONY quite some time now, and recently this page has been sharing stories far away from New York City. In partnership with the United Nations, supported by the Secretary General’s MDG Advocacy Group, Brandon is currently traveling to 10 countries over the course of 50 days, to visit faraway places and listen to as many people as possible.
When I opened the page today, there were several postings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each photo came with a unique story, informed by personal experience.
A question was on my mind that Malkie Schwartz posed to me when I first came to the ISJL, to begin my work as a Community Engagement Fellow: “What do you think of when you think about Africa?”
Most of the images I associated with Africa throughout my childhood had to do with Aid for Africa campaigns. Young children, malnourished, dusty, reaching out for food and help. This made me think. What if these were the only images you ever saw of Africa? What would you think of someone who came from there?
It’s difficult, and I think wrong, to see an entire continent as one-dimensional: needy, desolate, ravaged by AIDS.
This particular image from the HONY/United Nations project struck me. There’s a young man, standing in the middle of street, next to a poster of some young boys sitting on the ground, asking for food. In the caption that accompanies this photograph, the man says he does not like pictures like the one next to him. The man, credited as a Human of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, says: “It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this… This gives us no dignity.”
He’s right, and why can’t we elevate voices like his?
There’s a great campaign by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund that asks similar questions. They depict Norway as a cold, sad country that can’t afford to keep its citizens warm. They call for Africans to lend a hand and send radiators to Norway, to save the poor people that can’t help themselves. They ask, what if campaigns like this were the only thing you knew about Norway? What would you think of the country? Malkie wrote about this campaign awhile back, and it’s pretty eye-opening.
So here is my social justice challenge for the day, for all of us: go read a story about a company in Africa, learn about a local initiative. Think of positive adjectives to accompany the many negative ones we see in aid campaigns. Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes. We don’t like it when we experience it – we should actively work to avoid doing it to others.
It’s something I’ll be bearing in mind when it comes to Africa, and to my community engagement work here in the South, as well. Stereotypes are limiting. Stories open doors.
As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.