Torah | Life too muchStep back, focus on holy

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Exodus 25:1–27:19
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
Isaiah 66:1–24


Life is complicated. Be it at work, at home, with our families or with our friends, it sometimes feels as if there is always another obstacle to overcome, a situation to manage. And to some degree, that’s not at all surprising. As individuals we are complex, our relationships with one another are multidimensional and multifaceted, and our interaction with the universe is oftentimes quite confusing.

Don’t get me wrong; there is tremendous beauty and meaning in life through our connection to family and community, and beyond. But when it comes to making sense of the complicated day-to-day, I often wonder if we can find holiness in what might otherwise be the complexity of our lives.

As a postscript to the biggest event in tradition, revelation at Sinai, not to mention the most transformative narrative in Jewish history, the Exodus from Egypt, God gives us a building project.

God asks the Israelites wandering in the wilderness to “make Me a Sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). No simple feat, if you ask me. And surprising, considering all that has just happened, going from slavery to freedom, crossing the sea and experiencing a newfound relationship with God at Sinai. Why would God suddenly give the Israelites the task of building a sanctuary?

It’s hard enough to get a group to work collaboratively on a project. Could you imagine getting a million people to agree on designing and building the Tabernacle? Perhaps there is a method to God’s madness: Somehow a complex building project is the perfect response to the complex world we live in.

The great Hassidic master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked, “Why does the verse say that the purpose of making a sanctuary is so that God may dwell among ‘them’ as opposed to dwell in ‘the sanctuary’?” The Kotzker rebbe teaches that “each person must first build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

What does it mean to build a sanctuary in your own heart? I find that this speaks to the complicated nature of life. Even when in the thick of it, if you can take a step back, pause and breathe, often you may be able to begin to see that there is seemingly some order, something worth appreciating even when moments are tough.

Recognizing that there are people in your life who can love, support and comfort you can help the complex feel a bit more manageable. When we open up our hearts and expand our souls, we can refocus on the task at hand and push forward.

Alternatively, the Hassidic master the S’fat Emet suggests the purpose of building the tabernacle was threefold: to experience a sense of oneness in the realms of thoughts, words and deeds. It is through this oneness that we are able to be present with ourselves, with our communities and with God even in the most complicated situations.

The S’fat Emet helps me appreciate the fact that in moments of complexity, what we seek is a sense of wholeness, of oneness with ourselves, especially when we are pulled in multiple directions. By focusing our thoughts, words and deeds toward a bigger goal, we are able to feel more in control of our own existence knowing that we are working toward a common purpose.

The building of the Mishkan, therefore, was a way of creating meaning in a seemingly complicated moment following the Exodus as the Israelites became a Jewish people. Nearly 500 verses of the Torah, half of the Book of Exodus, are devoted to the details of building the Mishkan. The detailed description does not only explain physically building the Mishkan, but is also a spiritual metaphor for all of the other complexities we face in life.

Sometimes, it’s the coming together in a moment of complexity that helps us achieve that wholeness, personally and collectively. Being an active partner in building the world means engaging in the complexities of life, even when they are difficult, with the hope of building something greater, something inspiring, and something holy.

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].