God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the people of Israel to bring Me teruma, elevating gifts; take those gifts from everyone whose heart is so moved….And they should make me a holy place and I will dwell among them.” We will read these words in the Torah portion Teruma in early March, instructions to build the mishkan, the portable traveling communal center that will gather the recently freed Hebrew slaves as they walk across the desert. In mid-March the Torah’s chronology will bring us to the tale of the Golden Calf, that supreme rupture in the relationship between God and the people caused by their fear and God’s lack of understanding of them.
The Golden Calf comes after the instructions for the mishkan, yet generations of commentators have understood it to come before, because as commentator Aviva Zornberg reminds us, the building of the mishkan is an act of forgiveness, a tangible expression of God’s forgiveness for the people. So of course we learn that Moses is given the instructions to build it on Yom Kippur! In a midrash about the mishkan, God said [from Tanhuma, using Jeremiah’s words, from 30:17] “I will bring healing to you and cure you of your wounds.” The building of the Calf threatened to cause irreparable harm to the divine-human connection. The mishkan comes to “khaper,” atone, for that rupture. But “l-khaper” is not just to atone. Rather, it may mean “to cover.” And from that word, we get the name of this day, Yom Kippur, the day of covering.
Through this story that is and isn’t on Yom Kippur and is and isn’t in chronological order, we learn something about rupture and atonement: What does this covering mean? What then does atonement mean on this day of Atonement? And how are forgiveness and healing the same and different?
What happens when we atone? To start with, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes a relationship is so badly ruptured there can be no atoning and no forgiveness. But if we can atone, I think we are often covering something, often deep hurtful words and acts that we believe we can move past but that may pop up in future like the calf that emerged from the fire of the people’s orgy of fear and disbelief. Our forgiveness is often not complete, is instead a cover that allows us to move on, to act as if all is made whole again. And sometimes that acting “as if” does enable us to move to whole-heartedness. Sometimes time does what it can do so well, wring the fury or the despair out of those remembered words or acts. Sometimes it does not. Yom Kippur – the day of covering – urges us to take a look, not necessarily to peel back the cover to reveal the unhealed breakages under the surface, but perhaps to acknowledge that they are there, and that we are covering them with full knowledge. We may uncover only to re-cover and continue recovering.
If and when we find that we are broken, how do we begin to rebuild or build anew? Can we ever really rebuild, or must we always build something new? How do we learn to create a mosaic from the broken shards, an idea I learned from Gary Eckstein. What mishkan – what dwelling place for the Divine – can help us move forward in healing or forgiveness? When do we stop picking at that scab?
When the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, our ancient ancestors were determined to rebuild, bigger, better, and on the same spot. But when that second Temple was destroyed, Yohanan ben Zakkai recognized what had to happen. So in the midst of the destruction he had himself hidden in a coffin and carried across enemy lines to see Vespasian, who was about to be named Roman Emperor. He said to Vespasian, “Give me Yavneh,” a wish that was granted, and in Yavneh Yohanan built his great center of learning, replacing Temple with study house and sacrifice with prayer and study. I believe we are gathered here today because of him. He chose a new way to heal and survive, in a new place. A Jewish teaching says, “Change your place, change your fortune.” Sometimes it works.
Barry Svigals is the head of the architectural firm that built a new Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, after the town had torn down the old school, a necessary act of removal of unbearable pain. In a remarkable interview published in Parabola this summer, Svigals explained his process of involving everyone in town in talking and creating and listening before he ever made a plan for any part of a building. He said, “The questions we asked them didn’t have to do with the school at first. Because the process couldn’t start with that. But it could start with what they loved about their community, what they loved about their homes, what they loved about living in Newtown. And people brought in pictures and spoke about these pictures, showing them to everyone else. And when you hear someone speak with a real love for a place or an aspect of their community, people feel that love. People feel it. And that feeling, and that kind of communication, binds people together…There is a kind of remembering that is about the past and there’s a kind of remembering that is about the present. It's about bringing yourselves back again as a community. Re-membering your community. That dynamic of bringing a community back together is similar to the one that we as individuals also reflect which is a remembering of ourselves, bringing ourselves back together because events, traumatic events, fracture us… We need many therapeutic interventions to get ourselves back to a baseline where we’re more fully human. It’s so elemental, to be fully human. To fulfill what it might be to be a human in life, to be in life, and to contribute to life.”
The new Sandy Hook elementary school does not have a memorial. Jay Brotman of Svigals and Partners told NPR that the school community didn't want one. A memorial is planned for elsewhere in the town. As Svigals told All Things Considered
"We didn't look back. We felt our charge was very much to look forward,” he said.
The building of that school was an act of healing, an act of covering. No one will forget the violent murders that took place at that spot, in a building that no longer exists. But because it does not exist, because the new school covers the place where it stood, it allows some breathing room for everyone there, some time and place for them to move forward. Sometimes covering is not deceit or denial. Sometimes it allows us to breathe.
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel wrote an article recently about the 20th century synagogue architect Percival Goodman. Goodman’s brother Paul was a writer and they worked together after a reconciliation that renewed their relationship in adulthood. Underneath, covered by the reconciliation, was the memory that their father had abandoned the family to poverty when Percy was 7 years old. Gertel writes, ”Given the ambivalence to Judaism and the precariousness of home life in his childhood home, Percy was an unlikely purveyor of inspiring, welcoming and engaging [synagogues.]”
Goodman’s architecture for synagogue entryways corresponded with scriptural references to divine protection. One example: After the Golden Calf rupture, Moses famously asks to see God’s face. So God places Moses in a cleft of a rock and passes the divine presence before him, though he may not see God’s face. That Divine act, to allow Moses a closeness unheard of ever after, enabled a healing that lasted all of Moses’ life. Says Gertel, “Some of Goodman’s earliest structures feature entry [ways] that suggest a ‘cleft in the rock’…” Imagine entering a synagogue by standing in the cleft of a rock.
What ruptures sit heavy on your heart tonight? Can you figure out what will offer comfort? Is there a way to imagine that comfort, that healing, in a holding structure that focuses your need and comfort? What kind of world would you create if you suddenly had divine ability? Would it offer comfort, mercy, healing to the world? That might be an act of atonement as ‘at-one-ment,” as it is sometimes read – unifying harmony.
Soon after the massacre in Newtown, Rabbi Menahem Creditor wrote a song called Olam Hesed Yibaneh: The world will be built with lovingkindness. He wrote it, he said, with Newtown in his heart. And he said, “…This world will be built by love: ours and God's. In the best and worst of moments, non-fundamentalist "believers" and "atheists" are reaching for the same hope using different language. Amen to both.”
Here is one way to build a world with love: An artist named Theaster Gates has created an arts bank on the South Side of Chicago. One of the pieces that will soon be there is the Cleveland gazebo where Tamar Rice, age 12, was killed by police in 2014. Monica Davey wrote in the New York Times last month that at first, Tamar’s mother, Samaria Rice, “wanted the park gazebo to simply disappear…She said, “I didn’t want to see it ever again. It was a bad memory for me and a bad memory for that neighborhood, especially for the children.” Over time, says Davey, Ms. Rice has changed her mind. So 3 weeks ago the gazebo was taken apart and carefully boxed up for its move to Chicago to become part of the arts bank. Said Ms. Rice, “…I realized it has become a part of history…Maybe we can learn from it. Maybe it can even be a healing space.”
Theaster Gates said the gazebo would not be reconstructed right away… Like Barry Svigals in Newtown, he said he would first seek guidance in conversation with community groups, leaders, activists and those closest to the issues of guns and violence. “When we do land on a site,” he said, “we want to see it as a place to pray, to meditate, to have an open dialogue. We want this to be a place of both contemplation and amplification.” Let the world know what happened. Let the heart find solace in the cleft of a rock.
On Yom Kippur in the time before time, God said to Moses, “Make me a holy place and I will dwell among them.” Is God’s presence a bright promise that helps cover, read bury, the rupture of the Golden Calf? Or is the mishkan something new, a sacred space in which to breathe, to re-cover, to re-member ourselves and our community, to contemplate and amplify our best selves, the selves we know we can be after we recover from pain?
Kolot Chayeinu’s community has sometimes been ruptured by the painful departure of a beloved member, often in anger. Sometimes there has been teshuva and the return of the member after enough time has passed and the pain re-covered. Other times not. Student rabbi Mackenzie Reynolds recently sent an excerpt from a remarkable article by [Ñop Lo-awn Trun] Ngọc Loan Trần, “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable”.
Trun Tran writes, We have to let go of treating each other like not-knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.…We have to let go of a politic of disposability. We are what we’ve got. No one can be left to their [mistakes] and the shame that comes with them because ultimately we’ll be leaving ourselves behind.
On Sunday we will build a sukkah, a barely there building that is more space than structure. On the top we will place skakh, the green, recently growing branches that make the sukkah smell so good and remind us even in the city how close we are to nature. Parabola magazine asked architect Barry Svigals, “What’s the function of nature in healing, and in architecture that heals?” He answered, “We’re a part of nature, but we’ve forgotten that we’re a part of nature…We know, every one of us, that when we are in an environment where living things are growing and thriving, that it has a …healing effect…”
A midrash teaches that God too builds a sukkah. But where we put on top the branches that recently grew in the ground but have now been severed from their roots, God places on top of the divine sukkah skakh that is made of our recently growing but now severed sins. They have lost their juice, the sin has gone out of them, and God revels in the smell and the recognition that we can separate our sins from their roots. It may take time. We may not construct or reconstruct the buildings of our lives so quickly; we may spend some time covering what broke. We may need to listen deeply. But slowly we may see that the world in which we live and move, the center of gravity for our lives and relationships, the place where God may dwell, offers us healing, an embrace, a space to breathe that we can build. We can build this world with love.
SING Olam Hesed Yibaneh