A Mishkan Amidst the Storm

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A Mishkan Amidst the Storm

Cantor David Frommer

On the morning of Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s chances of defeating Donald Trump stood at 85%, according to The New York Times. With only four minutes left in the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons’ chances of defeating the New England Patriots stood at 92%, according to ESPN. Two days ago, at the Oscars, La La Land’s chances of defeating Moonlight for Best Picture stood at 100% after the presenters incorrectly announced its victory. And yet today, Moonlight is Best Picture, the Patriots are Super Bowl champs, and Donald Trump is President of the United States.

We all know the Yiddish saying, “Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht (Man plans and God laughs),” but this year God’s sense of humor seems to have gotten a little extreme.

Sadly, not all of this unpredictability has been limited to the harmless spectacle of a sporting or entertainment event. One of the most predictable elements of my daily life in New York, California, and even Kentucky has been the safety and normality of living a Jewish life--whether at a synagogue, a JCC or a cemetery. And yet, after further incidents of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism, coupled with a disturbing normalization of general bigotry and xenophobia in our national discourse, I cannot pretend I feel as certain as I once did. What can we learn from our Jewish texts to guide us in these unsettled times?

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Terumah, outlines the blueprint for building the Mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary in the desert. The Mishkan’s instructions are enumerated with incredible detail, regarding materials, size, shape and design. “They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold—inside and out—and set a gold molding around its top” (Exodus 25:10-11).

The placement of the entire parsha in Exodus has struck many commentators as strange. Why is the narrative of the story interrupted with all the minutiae of a giant assembly manual? Rashi proposes that, in fact, God issued the building instructions in Parshat Terumah after the Sin of the Golden Calf, even though they come before that episode in the Torah. It sounds like a strange theory but here’s why it might make sense. If you’re feeling a bit disoriented following the unforeseen occurrences in the last few months, imagine how God must have felt when the Israelites started worshipping the Golden Calf. God had just rescued them from slavery in Egypt, displaying miraculous control over the powers of humans and nature alike, and then brought them to Mount Sinai, where they were given loud and explicit orders not to worship idols. At that point, God probably imagined the chances of idol worship among the people at somewhere around Moonlight’s chances of winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

According to Rashi, God responded to this shocking development by issuing the instructions of Parshat Terumah—simple and specific physical tasks that would eventually add up to the creation of a sacred space where the broken relationship between the human and the divine could be repaired. The first lesson we learn from Terumah is the value of constructing order to counter the disorder that life will always throw at us.

But how are we to build that order? Surely not through constructing an ark, a lampstand, an altar, and the other pieces of the Mishkan at home in our living rooms. Well, not exactly, but let’s look again at that verse about how the ark was meant to be constructed: “Overlay it with pure gold—inside and out.” Reflecting on this particular detail, the sages of the Talmud concluded, “From this you learn that a wise person whose inside and outside do not match is not genuinely wise.”

There are many things we can’t control in life—from organized political elections to random acts of violence. But we can control our response to events that might frighten or discourage us. We can stand together for order and justice, and we can do this first and foremost by building the outside of our community to match the inside—by caring for others as we care for ourselves. We may not solve all the world’s problems in doing so, but at least we know we will be creating a holy space, a Mishkan built of values, where God’s presence will surely join in our efforts.


Cantor David Frommer is the Cantor at Sherith Israel in San Francisco, California. This post originally appeared in Sherith Israel's newsletter.