In Narrow Places: Part II

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"In the Narrow Places", by Erica Brown
29 Jun 2011
Arts & Media

Below is part two in a three-part series of excerpts from Dr. Erica Brown’s introduction to In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks

To view the first excerpt, please visit: In Narrow Places: Part I

Shabbat Shalom will feature the last excerpt next week.

Dr. Brown is one of the foremost Jewish educators of our time. Through her writing, study groups and adult education classes, she is helping people rethink Jewish tradition, become inspired Jewish leaders and revitalize Judaism itself.

Allowing Memory to Speak

Jews are beings of memory. Thus far, we have spoken only of the importance of reliving history. But something more intimate beckons. Within each of us is held a long personal and communal history dating back to the days of Abraham. Each step we take is over four thousand years old. It is hard to move in that vast, complex universe without a sense of how history informs our very identity. Job once asked, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (28:12). The wisdom and understanding that Job seeks lie in a combination of memory and mystery. We are because we remember. We build a future based on a web of patterns and behaviors generated over centuries. Yet in our history there are inexplicable gaps, miracles of survival and stories of unfathomable pain that are difficult to believe. That is why memory is so central to the Jewish experience. No one would believe us if we were not witnesses to our own past.

There is no real word in Hebrew for history, only for memory: zakhor. As Yosef Yerushalmi reminds us:

Memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous…we ourselves are periodically aware that memory is among the most fragile and capricious of our faculties.

Memory implies something far more personal than history; it is the living presence of a people’s triumphs and despairs that we carry with us internally wherever we are, not a historic catalogue of activities listed in some other, distant, impersonal space. Elie Wiesel once said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember I have the duty to reject despair” (Nobel Lecture, 11 December 1986). Jewish history is a story of the impossible. Carried within each of us is the touchstone of the impossible when we face despair. We can overcome. We have overcome. When we review our past, we reject despair because we can sum it up in one word: hope.

At no time in the Jewish calendar is this better expressed than on Tisha B’Av. To personalize this tragedy, we refer to the specific acts of destruction as Ĥurban HaBayit, the destruction of the House. The Beit HaMikdash becomes, in our vast collective memory, the loss of the ultimate House, the joint, cherished space that once defined our relationship with God, that shaped the habits and particulars of religious life for centuries and that provided us with a spiritual center, no matter where we were located. The Mikdash was not only the location of our divine stirrings and our loftiest aspirations, it also mirrored the very way we speak of God. God is HaMakom, the Place, the nexus of space and time precisely because God transcends both, but we do not. We are limited, finite, situated. As a result, the Mikdash becomes a critical address for finding the Makom. Yet it is near impossible to mourn a loss if we have little sense of what we are mourning. What is the significance of the Temple, the Mikdash, such that its loss stirs our grief?

God’s House

In the very physical, situated state of being human, we choose to refer to the Mikdash as a home, the repository of intimate love, as we read in Psalms: “Lord, I love the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells. (Psalms 26:8). Calling it the House is not calling it a synagogue; a house escapes the institutionalization implied by a building. It creates an image of warmth and invitation. It welcomes us to enter the personal space of the Other, with all of its subterranean complexities: “For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says Isaiah of God’s expansiveness (Isaiah 56:7). All who enter are invited to be “joyful in My house of prayer” (ibid.). This locus of international petition and supplication is not denied to anyone who chooses to make the Mikdash a platform for his or her sincerest offerings.

Before there was a Mikdash there was a Mishkan; a portable dwelling before there was a permanent home. Its creation became the group project of our fledging nation; all were to contribute their resources and talents. It was built in the wilderness where material objects are scarce and where God is generally to be found in nature rather than in a tented, purpose-built dwelling. Yet God states through the agency of Moses: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Commentators on this famous verse are quick to point out the misalignment of subject and predicate. It should say, “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it.” Instead, we find an alternative understanding of what it means to bring God down from the heavens to an earthly abode. Build a house so that God can live in you. The very attempt to create a place for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, will help you transcend any human notion of place, and bring you closer to the Holy One.

Timing is everything when you build a house. If we look at a large swath of Exodus, we encounter a pattern made familiar to us through the words of the philosopher Martin Buber. Buber’s famous I–Thou relationship is manifest in the tribulations of God and the ancient Israelites. In Egypt, Israelite slavery distanced our people from the integrity and dignity of faith. Slowly, over the period of the plagues, Moses removed the Israelites from the Egyptians’ mindset, and helped them appreciate the power and goodness of the One God in a country immersed in the I–It orientation of pagan worship, where gods and people become objects. Yet when the people arrived at Sinai, they encountered a God whose voice was so fear-inducing that they requested that the commandments be delivered solely through the agency of Moses. Set to the backdrop of lightning, thunder, smoke and the increasingly loud sound of the shofar, the scene was overwhelming; warnings to back away from the Mount on pain of death augmented the awe and fearfulness of the encounter. Moses feared nothing, but the people feared everything and held themselves back: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18). All in all, God appears as everything, as the people shrink into nothing.

Seen in this context, it should be no surprise that in Exodus 32, only a dozen chapters after the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites built a golden calf. Feeling that God was everything and they were nothing, they were now bent on reversing the terms – another manifestation of the I–It relationship, a confrontation of needs and wants rather than authentic relationship.

Only with Moses’ request for forgiveness and the building of the Mishkan is there the beginning of genuine intimacy, an I–Thou encounter. And when the Mishkan is completed, we read that “the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34), and with that Presence, there was no room left for human labor or human presence. “And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Presence of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (40:35). But a Tent of Meeting is only useful if those who occupy it can meet the Other. Thus begins the book of Leviticus, devoted to the details of worship in the Mishkan, “And the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting…” (Leviticus 1:1). God did fill the Mishkan but then, in what the mystics would call tzimtzum, divine contraction, He created a place for humans in His House, a true meeting place, a location for the I–Thou.

This spiritual center was a necessary anchor at a time of ambivalence, anxiety and loss of direction that our ancestors experienced in the wilderness. In Numbers, we find that the reconstruction of the Mishkan in each location had to be duplicated with precision; wherever the Israelites encamped, the Mishkan had to be built exactly as it was built the very first time. True to its metaphoric role as the camp’s center, it was also in the literal center of the camp, with attendant priests and Levites representing the first tiers to encamp around it, flanked by the rest of the tribes. When it came time to move, the Mishkan was first to be taken apart; and when it came time to set up camp, the Mishkan was first to be put up. Its movement signaled the movement of the entire camp: “When the Tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up” (Numbers 1:51). Between the surety of slavery and the anticipation of homeland, we had only one center that offered us security at a time of insecurity: God’s portable House.

Much later, when we reached our homeland and secured our borders, King David initiates the building of the Mikdash precisely after reflecting on the human need for shelter:

When the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: ‘Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent!’” (ii Samuel 7:1–2)

Consumed with guilt that he lived in a home while God “lived” in a tent, David wanted to build the Ark a permanent home where the beauty of its contents would be matched by its aesthetic covering, not by flimsy cloth walls. When the Mikdash was finally completed by David’s son Solomon, the new king offered his benediction by exploring the contradictory notion of place in the constellation of holiness:

O Lord, God of Israel, in the heavens above and in the earth below there is no god like You…But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built…May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place of which You have said: My name shall abide there…give heed in Your heavenly abode, give heed and pardon. (I Kings 8:23–30)

King Solomon opened this new chapter in the life of our people by reflecting on the irony of containing God in a dwelling, a house, when God can never be limited by human dimensions of space. We are human. These limitations are all we understand.

Thus, the loss of this ultimate House, Churban HaBayit, can only be understood through the loss of its microcosm, our own homes. Imagine a fire sweeping through every room of your house, taking with it in its destructive path the family portraits, the dinner table that served up so many intimate memories, the stores of souvenirs, objects and furniture that make up a life. In our sentimental moments, each nook and corner holds reservoirs of meaning. Who am I if I no longer have a home? Often when people are moving and look at the contents of their homes boxed up in cartons, their houses stripped of personal identifying markers, they experience the existential dizziness of dislocation. Imagine now that we undergo this as an entire people. We don’t know who we are when our center is removed.

Contemporary novelist Nicole Krauss beautifully captures this fundamental national loss through the nostalgia of one of her characters:

Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up as one, the House would be built again…or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory.

But we are far, so far, from having the safety of that perfect memory. God’s world, not only ours, contracted in the ashes of destruction. The God who has dominion over all, lost a touch-point to humanity.

This shrinking of the sacred is what we mourn. The collapse of beauty, the sudden inwardness of our tradition, the move from the altar to the mind as the focus of Jewish life, all of these were sacrificed in much the same way that the Mikdash once functioned to hold our guilt- and thanksgiving-offerings. We mourn a Judaism we never knew, one we can only imagine – the sights and smells, the bustle of pilgrimage, the relief of expiation, the reunion of families, the ingathering of people around a shared dream. We give a metaphoric nod in that direction when we pray: post-destruction, the Mishna canonized the original dream by instructing that we pray only in the direction of the Mikdash. The tractate of Berakhot (4:6) advises us to turn our hearts to the chamber of the Holy of Holies, and the Tosefta there (3:15) follows with its mandate to pray in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple from wherever we are in the world. The Temple in its absence can only receive the vibrations of our once national heart, directed in totality to a spot where few Jews can set foot today.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.