Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In the last weeks’ Torah readings (Terumah, Tetzaveh and Ki Tissa), our sacred myth has amplified the problem of human longing for — je ne sais quoi — we don’t quite know what — longing to be filled or fulfilled, to feel complete. Just as we are wont to do, the People of Israel looked to the tangible to fill their emptiness, melting down the ornaments they had brought out of Egypt in the hope that these signs of richness would, indeed, enrich them, now, re-forming them into a single golden mass to dance around and set as a solid center occupying their communal heart.
Some say the Golden Calf was an idol. Let’s just say it was too concrete, and in it’s tangible clunky-ness it fell flat as a representative of our prismatic imaginings of all that we need and desire to be complete, and of all the wonder and beauty we aspire to hold within us as we walk through the world. Some say the Golden Calf was not an idol, rather, a throne, not dissimilar from other animal-form thrones for other Near Eastern deities of the time, and as such it was an invitation to YHWH to come down from on High. But even so, the gesture was coarse, too concrete, as if we can capture what is ineffable and circumscribe the fluidity and fluctuation of our spiritual needs.
God said No: I can’t be held fast; I can’t be described. I am, in fact, best described by longing. If you fill yourselves solid, you will leave no space for me. If you could know me I would not be a mystery and we would not be engaged in this dynamic relationship of beloveds, me knocking on the door of your heart, and you cracking my heart open with your poignant human-ness.
So our sacred myth offers a different embodiment of a home for God in our midst, a counter-offer to the idol/throne that was the Golden Calf, an expression of absence rather than presence, an emptiness in which to engage in relationship rather than the fullness of space occupied – even by a most precious golden form. God says: Build me a shelter, a structure of great beauty with an emptiness at its center, and I will visit you there. God will certainly not fill the center with tangibility and God doesn’t even promise to remain seated. Rather, God asks for the space of possibility, a place from which to come and go, room for a flow of energy, a sanctuary for the encounters of heart and spirit that we dream of.
With shifts in the paradigm of Jewish practice and worship, we have long since internalized the Tabernacle, knowing that our temples reside within. So, the message for us is: don’t fill up to feel OK. The encounter will take place within the space of our longing. And in great measure, the fulfillment of our spiritual lives is the yearning itself, the attenuated reach of our emptiness toward a greatness we intermittently see or hear or touch.
May we have the courage to leave something open at our cores. May we feel spirit move within us and be available to relationship with whatever is beyond. And may our imaginations complete our unions with that for which we most deeply yearn.
photo credit: Ross Andelman
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.