“Together Apart: Gathering Outside of our Sanctuary” A sermon for Vayakhel/Pekudei

In 2012, MIT professor, Sherry Turkle coined the phrase “Alone Together” for her book exploring the impact of technology on our human interactions– think: teens sitting around the table, texting one another rather than talking to one another.  In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters, entitled her piece, “How to be together apart in the time of Coronavirus”

Alone together// together apart.

We know that we can be alone in the midst of community, whether it is our technology that is taking us away from human interactions or just because we may not be connecting to those around us.   Our challenge now is to find ways to feel together while we are physically apart.

For us as a religious community, there is an added element to our being apart – being out of our sacred space.  For us, our community generally means being together here, in our synagogue, at Vassar Temple.

Coincidentally (or perhaps, not), for these past few weeks, our Torah reading has focused on building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.  Three weeks ago, we read about how Moses received the command from God to build it, last week we had the diversion of the Golden Calf, and this week Moses gives the command to the Israelites and they immediately respond by bringing all of the items needed to build the Tabernacle.  Exodus ends with the erection of the Tabernacle.

With such focus on a physical space where the Israelites would meet God, it may be surprising to find the deeper messages within that, despite all of the details describing it, it’s not really about the space at all.

Indeed, the command given to Moses to build the sanctuary was

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

Exodus 25:8

The language is clear – that I might dwell among them, not within it.

The Tabernacle could only be built from the contributions from those whose hearts so moved them, from the people working together with a willing spirit.  Indeed, the opening words of this week’s parsha further emphasize the communal element of this project:  Vayakhel Moshe et Kol adat b’nei Yisrael – and Moses convoked the whole community of Israel.. (Exodus 35:1) and the whole community responded.

It wasn’t the structure that invited God’s presence to dwell within; rather, it was the people joined together in a united effort that created the space for the Divine.

Furthermore, within the details for the Tabernacle, God designs the inner court containing the Ark with the tablets, with a cover over it of pure gold with two cherubim on its ends.  It is unclear just what cherubim were, but they were winged creatures with faces – most likely figures with animal bodies and human faces.

Thus, says God:  “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”  (Exodus. 25:22)

It is in this structure, in between these two figures most closely representing human beings, that God’s presence would be experienced.

We experience God in human relationships.  We see that linguistically as well.

The Hebrew name for the Tabernacle, Mishkan, comes from the root for the word to dwell.  The Hebrew word for neighbor is scheinah; one of the names for God is Shechinah, Divine Presence, Indwelling.  When we are acting as true neighbors, as community, we invite Shechinah to dwell among us.

Once settled in the Promised land, our ancestors understood God’s presence as being felt most closely in the Temple in Jerusalem, the one place where sacrifices could be offered.  And so it was for 1000 years.  The destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people from Judea, could have been cataclysmic for Jewish life, but the rabbis understood that God was not limited to that space, as they taught:   “You find that whenever they were exiled, the Shechinah was exiled with them…. And when they return, the Shechinah will return with them…”  (Midrash Sifrei Bamidbar 84)

So, even if we are exiled, as it were, from our synagogue, from our sacred space, the Shechinah will be with us as we find new ways to gather as a Kehilah Kedoshah, a sacred community.

Such innovation, adaptation, though perhaps unnerving, is not new to us.  In fact, innovation is intrinsic to Jewish survival.   Indeed, when the 2nd Temple was destroyed by Romans 70 CE, it seemed to portend the end of Jewish life.  However, because of the courage and ingenuity of the rabbis – standing up to others who opposed their creativity – Judaism was transformed into what we know today.  If we could no longer worship God through sacrifice, we would through prayer and the synagogue replaced the Temple.  The Shabbat table became our altar and Torah study, a path to experience God.  The Festivals were “repurposed.”  Passover, for example, emphasized the Exodus rather than spring harvest offerings; the rabbis developed the most commonly practiced ritual in Jewish life, the Seder, modeled after Roman meals.

So, too, today, can we continue in this tradition of adaptation and redefine what it means to be a community, taking advantage of the tools of technology to connect us – not only now, in this time of national emergency, but even integrating technology into our regular activities to connect more people for worship, for learning, for community.

“There I will meet you,” said God.  Wherever we gather, if we are face to face, physically or virtually, we can invite God’s presence to dwell among us — if we are in real relationship with one another.  Martin Buber, the great German Jewish philosopher of 20th c, whose seminal work redefined our understanding of God’s presence to be in real, “I -Thou” relationships between people, wrote critically of modern society.  He challenged many community structures as not being real community because they don’t foster true connections between people, because they are based on so much superficiality and not on deep, lasting relationships.  He called for something more meaningful:

“The divine may come to life in individual man, may reveal itself from within individual man; but it attains its earthly fullness only where … individual beings open themselves to one another, disclose themselves to one another, help one another; where immediacy is established between one human being and another… Where this takes place, where the eternal rises in the Between, the seemingly empty space: that true place of realization is community, and true community is that relationship in which the Divine comes to its realization between man and man…Judaism therefore is not concerned with a God who lives in the far beyond, for its God is content to reside in the realm between one earthly being and the other, as if they were cherubim on the Holy Ark …“ (“The Holy Way,” in On Judaism, pp.109-111)

This is the community we strive to create, one that fosters real relationships, where we can share our truest selves.  On the one hand, that may seem especially challenging now but perhaps we might find that space in the more intimate connections we can make as we strive to overcome our social isolation through phone conversations, face time, virtual dinners with friends.   These can be opportunities for developing deeper bonds – to be alone together.

Our understanding of community has taken on additional new meaning in this health crisis.  As we strive to stop its spread, to “flatten the curve,” we have come to understand just how interconnected we are.

First and foremost, being part of the larger community – whether it means Poughkeepsie and its environs, New York, the United States and the global community of humanity now united in fighting this virus – means that we have obligations to others.  Following health care protocols, including social distancing is not only for our own health and well being and that of those who are closest to us, but it is for other members of this larger community, most especially those who are most vulnerable.

It is absolutely appalling to see news reports of young people on beaches, in bars, gathered together in large groups as if nothing is going on.  Yes, young people often do have a sense of invincibility, but this is about so more than them.

If you have young people within your family circle, I implore you to underscore to them how important it is that they follow these guidelines for the health of others.

Our new sense of community calls upon everyone to step up to help out; as our leaders have been saying, this is a time of war.   In whatever ways that we can, we need to support those on the front lines – our health care workers, emergency responders.  They must have adequate equipment to function; they are putting their health at risk to care for others.  Similarly, we owe a sense of gratitude and support to those who are keeping essential businesses open so that our needs can be met.

As the numbers of those sick and dying continue to increase, we will be called upon to support one another in ways that we could not have imagined before this moment.  The economic impact of this virus is simply beyond comprehension and we know that its affects will be felt long after that day when the virus itself is finally conquered.  Our Federation is coordinating an effort to support those who are in need and provide opportunities for those who are able to volunteer.   Mitzvah Day is being transformed from a one-day event (that can no longer happen as had been scheduled) to on-going opportunities to help others.

Being a community means that we will be there for one another, that we will stand together for the long haul, that we will support one another and make it through this time – whether we can be together physically or not.

This afternoon Gov. Cuomo announced an executive order taking effect Sunday night that all non-essential workers are to stay home.   We will figure out our plan to keep the Temple functioning and we will develop more opportunities to connect virtually.

Sadly, but necessarily, it will mean more social isolation.

We are grateful to Judy Rosenfeld, Reyut chair, for coordinating an effort to reach out to those who may be most isolated or at risk of being so and developing a group of callers who will keep in touch.   Thanks to many who have stepped up to make calls.

Even more, we can each be intentional – every day – to reach out to friends, to neighbors – to stay connected so that we are not in exile from one another, even as we are isolated.

Have virtual dinners with friends or virtual Shabbat dinners (and send us photos to post on Facebook).   We need to spread the message that we can be “alone together” for social isolation is, indeed, frightening.

I happened to catch part of Gov. Cuomo’s press conference on Tuesday.  I was moved by how personally he spoke and addressed the very real fears we all have in this most uncertain time.

At one point, he held up his hands – one finger in each hand like this — and said “ it is this much time.”  We don’t know if it’s 3 months, 6 months, or 9 months,  but it is this much time – and we will get through it.

There is a beginning and an end point; we don’t know the end date nor what will transpire in between, but there will be an end point.  And we will get through it together – as we learn how to be “alone together.”

The book of Exodus began with the enslavement of the Israelites; we conclude it this Shabbat with the erection of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, the Place of God’s Indwelling.

In his commentary on the book of Exodus, the noted biblical scholar and German Reform Rabbi Benno Jacob wrote:   “Our book which began in darkness concludes in the brilliant illumination of God’s glory before the eyes of the entire House of Israel.” (Eitz Chaim Torah Commentary, p. 572)

So, may we, through support of one another, through true community that invites Shechinah to dwell among us, transform this time of darkness into one of light and of hope.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon