When Death breaks into the Torah-study & the Life-breath leaves the Mishkan

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 2/14/2005

This past Shabbat (T'rumah), our congregational Torah-study was exploring the two different sorts of sacred space described in the weekly reading.

And in the midst of our talk, a distraught member of our community came running red-eyed, short of breath, into the room to report that a community member had just died, at home.

We knew he had been sick, going through the ups and downs of wrestling with cancer. But of course the report came as a shock. We dealt with a few of the practical details, calmed the woman who had brought the news. And then the question was — Do we return to the Torah study? How?

When I am not away from home speaking or teaching for Shabbat, I "weave" the Torah study at P'nai Or of Philadelphia. I always begin with a blessing that invokes YHWH (pronounced without vowels as "YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh," a rough breathing) as the "Breath of Life."

We bless that Breathing Spirit of the world Who breathes into us the wisdom to know that we share our breathing with all life, and with our tongues and lips can shape our breathing into words that aim toward wisdom — words of Torah.

For this particular study, I had invoked the breath by asking the community to feel their own bodies as the sacred space, the Shrine or Temple, that receives, holds, and shares the YHWH/ Breath of Life.

Why that special invocation? Because we were about to read part of the Torah portion on the "Mishkan," that portable tent erected in the Wilderness in which God's Presence was to appear. The Breath, the Wind, of YHWH would become visible as a thick cloud, a cloud of Mystery, descending into the Mishkan. (Exodus 25: 1 to 27: 19)

And we were also about to read the prophetic portion that describes King Solomon's building of a most immovable Temple in Jerusalem. (I Kings 5: 26 to 6: 13)

As one member of the community commented, this "solid, stable, permanent" Temple has been gone for 2,000 years; the evanescent, portable Shrine is still surviving. We build synagogues or rent the rooms for them, we move them, leave them, shape new ones. Sometimes, though not always, we experience the Spirit, Breath, descending, ascending, amidst us in those spaces. For many of us, the Spirit appears even more easily in a moment walking when we glimpse the sliver of a new moon, when we lean into a tree, when we hear a voice soaring into song, when we see someone rush to save from danger a child from another family, when we watch a million people — or just twenty — call for peace and justice.

The portable Shrine, the richly colored Mishkan, was to be built from the heartfelt voluntary contributions of a just-freed people.

The Temple was built by forced labor under the orders of a king.

We began to explore the differences between these two versions of a sacred sanctuary.

And then our fellow-member came bursting into the room.

After we caught our breath from her announcement, as our "weaver" I took responsibility to reweave the fabric of our learning:

If indeed we saw our bodies as these Temples of the Breathing Spirit of the world, Temples of YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, what did it mean for us when one of u stopped breathing?

Is the point that our bodies are as temporary, as portable, as evanescent a the wilderness Mishkan, homes to the Spirit that appears and vanishes as It wills, yet always an invitation to the Spirit's reappearance, a promise that It will?

This week the Mishkan reappears in our reading. Indeed, it is present in one-third of the Book of Exodus:

First, as God explains to Moses what it is to look like (even projecting a kind of PowerPoint upon the heavens because the verbal description is so hard to turn into an image) and what architect and interior designer should be chosen to direct its shaping;

Then as Moses' transmission of these instructions to the people;

Finally as the action that actually gets it built.

So again this week (Ex. 27: 20 to 30: 9), even if no death intrudes its way into the Torah study, we can explore what brings the Cloud of Mystery to turn our daily breathing into an Ascent of the Spirit, what makes our bodies into a vessel for the Breath of Life — and what sends the spirit forth, seeking another sacred sanctuary.

Perhaps to settle where the identity that has breathed out survives, not in mental memory alone but in the carved-out walls built of kindness and cruelty, sorrow and joy, curiosity and beauty and clumsiness and tears, that settle into place, all but immovable, all but immutable, in those whose lives have been shaped by the one who has died.

A Temple enforced upon us by that ruler who takes over when the ever-changing Mishkan has dissolved.

Shalom, Arthur

In memory of Joe Derbyshire

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