Thursday, June 2, 2016

Has our Relationship Lost its Sizzle?


There is a bizarre verse in this week’s parasha. In listing the blessings that will be bestowed on the people if they follow God’s commandments and observe God’s laws—the rains will come in their appointed season, the land will bring forth its fruit, there will be peace in the land, and the people will be fruitful and multiply—the Torah reaches a climax with, “I will place my Tabernacle (mishkani) in your midst, and My soul will not abhor you” (Vayikra 26:11). What are we to make of this anti-climax? Of course God will not abhor us! We are living a fully religious life and are worthy of all these blessings. Why should this blessing—if that’s what it is—be necessary?

The answer is found in the first half of the verse: things may change once God has put God’s Tabernacle in our midst, and not necessarily for the better. We know that we are lacking as long as we are without a mishkan, a physical embodiment of God’s presence, a concrete and institutionalized structure of kedusha. We understand that we have not yet achieved our full religious potential, and that we must continue to strive and reach. Without a mishkan, we will live our lives driven by the mandate of kedoshim ti’hiyu, you shall become holy, striving to better actualize the divine within ourselves, knowing that we will never reach our ultimate goal.

Once God’s mishkan is in our midst, however, we may think that we have arrived. If God dwells among us, then there is no striving left do. We are fully holy, and we have the mishkan to prove it. With this attitude comes great danger, for if we are already holy, we will not stop to take stock of ourselves and our actions. We will not ask if there is more that we could be doing, if we are doing everything properly, or if we are being properly responsive to the world around us. We will become religiously complacent and self-satisfied. If we go down this path, we will hurt ourselves and others. We will come to believe that we are the only ones with the truth. Our sole mission will be to protect the truth and our mishkanim—our concretized embodiments of God’s presence—against defilement and impurity. We will divide the world into insiders and outsiders, with outsiders seen as people of no consequence at best, and at worst, as dangerous, threatening, and even evil. And it does not end there. The institutionalization of God’s presence can also lead to great corruption, as with the sons of Eli (I Shmuel 2) and as we see today when religion institutions gain power over people’s lives.

God’s placing of God’s mishkan in our midst, then, is a two-edged sword, a blessing that entails a very real risk. Seen this way, we can understand why the verse continues, “And my soul will not abhor you.” This is not a consequence of what has preceded but, rather, a second blessing. You will be blessed that, even with the mishkan in your midst, you will not become complacent, sanctimonious, and corrupt. You will not become a people abhorrent to God, a people who have abandoned the path of true kedusha and become so self-righteously satisfied with their own religiosity. You will succeed at having God’s mishkan while remaining true to God’s Torah.

How will this be achieved? The answer is found in the verse: “And I will walk (vi’hithalakhti) in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12). God will move about among us. We will experience God as a moving presence, one that is constantly urging us to act, respond, and not stay still or dig in roots. When God is moving, you will know that God is near, but you will never know exactly where God is. There is uncertainty, and that keeps us striving, looking inward to take stock of ourselves and where we are, and looking out to seek that connection with God’s presence.

In fact, this word, hithalekh, to move about, occurs multiple times in Breishit in the context of the human relationship to God. The first occurrence is in the story of Gan Eden, when Adam and Eve hear the sound of God moving about, mit’haleikh, in the garden. The sense of an imminent encounter with God forces them to hide out of shame; they look at themselves honestly, knowing that God will soon be looking at them. Perhaps more to the point are all the instances in which becoming righteous is defined as walking before God: “And Hanokh walked before, hit’haleikh, God” (Breishit 5:22); “Before God did Noah walk” (Breishit 6:9); “God appeared to Avram and said to him: Walk before Me and be perfect” (Breishit 17:1); and finally, “And [Yaakov] blessed Yosef and said to him: The Lord before Whom my fathers have walked…” (Breishit 48:15).

If we see God’s presence in our midst as static, then our religiosity will be static. If, however, we see God as moving in our midst, then we will seek God out. We will seek opportunities to grow, to reach God, to understand what it is that we must do in the world. The relationship will be dynamic; it will be alive. Hence the verse that begins with, “I will walk in your midst,” concludes with, “and I will be your God and you will be my people.”

The Orthodox community has fallen short of this vision of a vibrant, dynamic religiosity. Orthodoxy, with its various mishkanim, its institutionalized embodiments, often leads to stasis, complacency, and religious self-satisfaction. Only by reintroducing the mandate to be mithalekh—to move, grow, and respond to the outside world and all its contemporary challenges—can we hope to maintain a true relationship with God. Only a religious vision such as this can allow us to connect to all those who have become alienated, who have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they have no place in our mishkan, that they are threats, that they are not worthy and not wanted. Only such a religious vision will bring life and growth to those who are committed to Torah and mitzvot but who see in religion only the forms, only preserving and protecting rather than moving and growing.

We must be prepared to look honestly inward to see what must be changed, and to look outward to see what must be done to bring the light of Torah to the larger Jewish world. May we have God’s help to continue on this path and to have hatzlacha in all that we do, so that we may all be blessed to see fulfilled in our days the blessing, “and I will be your God and you will be my people.”


Shabbat Shalom!