this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon –
This morning’s Torah portion provides us with a detailed description of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used as a site of worship as they wandered in the wilderness. The Torah text gives us every measurement, it details every ritual item, from the sacrificial altar to the ark of the covenant, and it even tells us where the items were to be placed in relation to one another. It is very difficult from the text to form a picture in your mind, to imagine visually what the words are describing, but there is a drawing in the back of our humashim that is worth looking at – it is on page 1520.
– note first of all the space – there are two perfect squares, and at the center of each square is a sacred object, in one case the sacrificial altar (מזבח), and in the other case the Kodesh Hakodeshim, the Holy of Holies where the ark was located.
– There are three areas of sacred space in the enclosure, of ascending levels of holiness. The least holy, the outer courtyard area. The next, what is called the ‘Holy Place’ , inside the tent where the table and menorah were located. Then the most holy area is where the ark is located, behind the curtain. This symbolically corresponds to Mt. Sinai, where there were also 3 areas of holiness – the least holy area the foot of the mountain where the people were. Then half way up the mountain, where Aaron and the leaders could go. Then there was the top of the mountain, where only Moses could go. In this way the Tabernacle is supposed to be a movable Sinai, a way of keeping the Sinai experience with the Israelites as they wandered.
– now lets look at the objects, the furnishings for the tabernacle –
In the Torah reading the most detailed descriptions, the most intricate instructions, are provided about the ritual objects – you can see the artist’s depictions of them on the opposite page, 1521. It only makes sense that these objects get the most attention because they are the most sacred objects in the entire history of the Jewish people with the exception of the two tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain. And the most sacred of these sacred objects are the lamp stand (the menorah), the table for bread, and the ark itself. You can see from the textual citations that all three of these objects are described in one chapter, the 25th chapter of Exodus, the very first chapter of this morning’s reading.
These items were not only the most sacred items – they were also the most beautiful, and the most expensive by far. The Torah specifies that any solid metal parts of these objects had to be made entirely of gold, and that any wooden part of the object had to be guided with gold, in the case of the ark, not only on the outside, but even the inside had to be guided with gold. So these objects were not only sacred, they were breathtaking, visually arresting, made by the greatest artisans of ancient Israel. But given all of that, there is something very strange about these objects, and that is that they were never seen, by anyone. The only exception to that was on YK day when the High Priest would go in to the Holy of Holies, and once daily when a specially appointed priest would go in to maintain the menorah’s light.
But aside from that, these objects were never seen. Despite their beauty, despite the gold that was used to make them, despite their artistic qualities, they were never seen by anyone. Even when the Tabernacle was moved there was one Levite who first went into the tent, took special cloths, covered over the ark, the menorah, and the table, and only then did the tent come down and did people come forward to porter the objects. They were never seen. Ever.
And yet people knew they were there. People knew that inside that tent there was a beautiful Menorah made of solid gold, and the intricate showbread table gilded in gold, and the ark with its golden image of angelic figures. And knowing that they were there, but not being able to see them, created a particular dynamic, which was that in the minds of the Israelites – in their imagination – the objects must have been even greater, even more beautiful, even more sacred than they actually were. That is what imagination does. That is the power of imagination. Knowing too much – seeing too much – can take that power away.
That it seems to me is a particular challenge that especially our young people wrestle with today. I am going to call it ‘screen syndrome.’ Our young people today spend an inordinate amount of their time staring at a screen, whether their phone, a TV, or a computer. Current statistics estimate that the average teen will spend about 50 hours a week interacting with a screen device. More than a full time job! And there are many potential problems that are involved with that dynamic, but one of them, I think, is that the more time you spend staring at a screen, the less time you spend using your imagination. Because the screen gives you access to everything, instantly – you don’t have to imagine anything! If you want to know what something looks like, or how something works, or how you need to do something, you just look it up on your computer. What you gain in accuracy, you lose in mystery. What you gain in efficiency, you lose in the discovery of new things while trying to solve a problem. When you don’t have to imagine anything, I think you don’t dream the same way, you don’t look at the world the same way. It makes it easier to see the world for what it is, but it makes harder to see the world for what it could be. And that – imagining the world as it could be – more than anything else, is the job of a Jew.
I believe the Oscars are this weekend? And I love a good movie, always have. But I love a good book even more, in fact much more. Whenever people make movies from books, there is always a debate about which version is better, the screen version or the paper one? For me there has never been a question. In a movie you can show me beautiful mountains, gorgeous rivers, ancient ruins, but the images on the screen could never match the way I picture them in my mind when I read. With today’s special effects you can make magic come to life, you can realistically depict a huge dragon flying thorough the sky, but it could never be as magical and mysterious, as terrifying and fearsome and spectacular as it was when I read those pages and conjured up those images in my own imagination. It was not seeing them that made them even greater.
We are often called the people of the book. This is not only because of our love of learning, but also because of our ability to imagine the world in a different way – for Abraham to grow up in a world of idol worshippers, and yet to introduce to the world the idea of monotheism; for the ancient Israelites to live in a place of slavery and death but to somehow imagine a world of freedom and life; for the early settlers of the land of Israel to look out over a desert wilderness, but to imagine that dry land filled with lush green fields and fruit trees; to dwell in a broken world, but to constantly talk about tikkun olam (#tikkunolam) – the fixing of that world – a central principle of our faith.
There are two words that mean ‘to see’ in Hebrew. One is לראות – to see what is in front of you, the physical world. But the other is לחזות – which means to see in a different way, to envision – to imagine a future possibility. We must see in both ways – the world as it is, but also the world as it should be.