To See or Not to See

“To See or Not to See”
by Rabbi Diane Elliot

 

Our Torah portion this week, the last one in the Book of Exodus, begins with the words, “eleh p’kudei ha-mishkan, mishkan ha-edut, asher pukad al-pi moshe,” “These are the reckonings of the Mishkan, the Dwelling Space of Witness, which were reckoned at Moses’ behest…” (Exodus 38:21) For the past few weeks, Torah has been exhaustively describing the materials, dimensions, appurtenances, and holy technologies of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary to be built from the free-will offerings of the people. First G~d conveys them to Moses, then Moses conveys them to the people. Between these two tellings comes a great rupture—the fabrication and worship of a calf of gold, a solid object born of the fears that arise in Moses’ absence, which becomes, for the Israelites, G~d’s absence.

The Netivot Shalom, a 20th century Hasidic commentator, brings a teaching from the mystical tradition: the word edut—testimony or witness—is composed of the same letters as the word da’at—intimate knowledge. The golden calf signifies a major falling away from the awesome, direct knowing of Divinity that the people momentarily experience at Mt. Sinai. The holy work of creating the Mishkan ha-edut represents a tikkun, a repair of da’at. Participating in its creation, we are fortified in our ability to witness the truth of Oneness in the face of fear, disappointment, personal distress, even boredom. As contemporary mystic and scholar Rabbi Miles Krassen writes, “We need such sacred constructions because our little eyes are too weak and easily distracted and cannot recognize directly that we are already blessed to be present within a Divinely constructed sanctuary, the Earth Herself….”

In my own experience “knowing” and “vision” are intimately related. Lately I’ve been experimenting, literally, with seeing. Each day I remove my glasses and stand looking at the panoramic view beyond our living room window, breathing deeply and inviting my naked eyes, near-sighted since age ten, to focus on one new thing—the crisp fronds of the palm tree just outside the window, the purple and green yard umbrella next to the neighbor’s house, the stripe around the RV parked several blocks downhill, a distant spire across the Bay in hazy downtown San Francisco. There is a wonder growing in me as I reawaken long-dormant visual pathways. It’s as if all the years of wearing glasses and contact lenses, while allowing me to see the world clearly, have narrowed my vision, preventing me from deeply witnessing the world’s richness.

Spiritually speaking, this witnessing flows both ways. In our parsha, before the great Israelite artisans can begin to carve and weave and build all the pieces that will be assembled into the Space of Witness, Moses makes a pikudei ha-mishkan, a detailed accounting of every person’s contribution of gold, silver, copper, wool, and linen to the Mishkan. The Zohar, the essential text of Jewish mysticism, relates that Moses’ accounting is actually G~d calling out to each person her or his “essential name,” her or his function or role (taphkid, same root as pikudei), in the exact way that that person needs to receive it.

Only after G~d has witnessed, acknowledged, “known” each member of the community can their contributions be fashioned and assembled into the physical structure of the Mishkan. Only then can the opacity of the precious metals and fabrics that the people have contributed be transformed into a sacred emptiness that will mirror back to each one the Truth of who we all are.

Thus the Book of Exodus, which began with a litany of sh’mot, the names of the band of souls who came down to Egypt with Jacob, ends with the completion of this melekhet ha-kodesh, this holy project, in which each Israelite’s true name becomes an essential element in building an edifice capable of channeling Presence through and for the whole community. In these days, when our fears and sense of lack so easily blot out our deep knowing, let us be firm in our resolve to see and to know, to witness and to receive the Light of Oneness, wherever it shines. Khazak, khazak v’nit’khazek, be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen one another.

Note: with much gratitude to my study partner, R. SaraLeya Schley, who helped birth the insights of this d’var.