What Jewish spiritual resources and tools can help us in these uncertain times? There are, I believe, multiple answers to this question (community, education, activism), but I wish to focus on one that is available to us at any moment: Stopping to breathe and live with intention and gratitude.
This coming Shabbat, we read a Torah portion from the Book of Exodus called Terumah. It contains an elaborate set of instructions for building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used during their 40-year journey through the wilderness. Mishkan means “dwelling place” and is derived from the root shin kaf nun, which means “to dwell.” The word “Shehkinah” actually has the same root and describes the Divine Presence that filled the Mishkan after it was constructed.
There are two rabbinic traditions about the Mishkan that I find fascinating. In one, it is described as a microcosm of the universe, with various parts corresponding to the world around us. In another reading, the Mishkan is likened to the human body. Here are few of many parallels, translated in “Letters of Maimonides,” by Leon D. Stitskin.
• The Holy Ark, the innermost part, alludes to the human heart, which is the innermost part of the body. The Ark was the main part of the Mishkan because it contained the Tablets of the Covenant. So, too, is the human heart the main part of the body. It is the source of one’s life, knowledge, and understanding.
• The menorah in the Mishkan alludes to the human mind. Just as the menorah gives forth light, so the intellect enlightens the entire body.
• The incense altar alludes to the sense of smell.
• The sacrificial altar alludes to the intestines, which digest the food that enters the body.
• The goats’ wool hangings allude to the skin that covers the human body.
It is suggested here that just as the sanctuary structure resembles a human body, so the human body is a sanctuary, and therefore should be treated and respected as such. Furthermore, we are each miraculously complex, with an intricate network of parts working together for us to be able to breath, walk, eat, and basically live. We don’t need to look as far as the heavens and the stars to experience awe because we are miraculous!
Just as the Divine Presence filled the Mishkan, we too are dwelling places of the Divine in the world. Our souls, our Divine sparks, animate these amazing forms so that we can make choices to live with purpose, curiosity, and compassion.
“Shakhen,” from the same root as Mishkan and Shekhinah, means “neighbor.” The Divine Presence dwelling in our midst is not only in each of us, but also is as close as the person right next to us. Even if they look different, act different, or believe different things, even if they annoy us, we have an essence that is the same.
When there are forces working to divide us and instill hate and fear, may we seek clarity of mind and spirit. Let us take time to just breathe, even for a few minutes, and connect to our Holy of Holies – our heart, and to our menorah – our enlightened mind. As easy as this sounds, it is not always easy. It takes practice and patience.
May we also strive to know the miracle that is each and every human being, and treat ourselves, and each other, accordingly.
Truly, there is more that unites us than divides us.
Rabbi Alison Adler is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.