“A Place for Your Stuff.”
I’ve always appreciated a monologue by George Carlin on the topic of “a place for your stuff.” The comedian describes the way we accumulate physical things in our homes and basements. When we travel, we take a smaller version of our “stuff” with us. When we are far from home, we recreate the security of home by unpacking. It is traumatic for us to put together an even more condensed version for a daytrip or overnight, until we are finally left with what fits in a pocket or on a windowsill. His routine, though it uses a number of words that still cannot be used on television, let alone in a d’var Torah, does reflect an essential element of the human condition.
That same human need is reflected in a deeper way in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah. God, whose presence fills the universe, has no need of “a place for stuff.” The Israelites, wandering in the desert with only what they could carry out of Egypt, need the stability of a physical focus—a place and objects—to cement their relationship with God. A permanent sanctuary is of course not practical—only in Deuteronomy, with the land of Israel in sight, will the Torah even mention that possibility. For the here and now, God provides an alternative, the mishkan, a portable sanctuary, a place where God may “dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8).
The mishkan reflects a strange tension between practical portability and psychological permanence. Exodus 25-27 describes how each part of the Tabernacle was designed to be disassembled and transported. The walls were made of boards and pillars small enough to be carried or placed on wagons. The various tapestries and coverings were designed in sections, attached to each other with as many as fifty clasps each. Most ritual objects had rings, so that they could be carried on poles placed through the rings. And yet, this very portability provided a kind of constancy: when its parts were fastened together with hundreds of loops, sockets and bars, and the carrying staves were removed from the rings of its many utensils, it would require the work of hundreds of Levites to undertake its disassembly. Packing up and moving the mishkan and its implements was not a task to be undertaken hastily or lightly.
The Ark of the covenant was the exception to this rule, the one object which was never fully unpacked or “put away.” God commands: “The staves must remain in the rings of the Ark; they may not be removed from it” (Exodus 25:15). Several practical explanations are suggested for this commandment. For instance, Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his section of the new Etz Hayim commentary, suggests that the commandment was meant to ensure that the ark, as the holiest of objects, would not be touched unnecessarily. Others suggest that whereas the other objects were kept in parts of the Tabernacle where poles would interfere with the performance of priestly duties, the ark remained in the Holy of Holies, an area which was only visited once a year, by the High Priest, and therefore the poles would not be in the way.
There is a deeper significance, though. Many times in history, Jews have had to flee with only what they could carry. They have had to leave behind the warmth of communal buildings and institutions, the comfort of businesses and homes, personal and ritual objects, even dear friends and family. Sometimes they kept their bags packed, dreading a knock that they knew would come; other times they slipped away in the dead of night with nothing more than could be left on a neighbor’s windowsill or would fit in a pocket.
In the midst of the semi-permanence and presumed stability of the mishkan, there was always one implement packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. It was not the table, laden with showbread and symbolizing physical and financial comfort, nor the illuminating menorah. Rather it was the Ark, bearing the tablets of law, the avatar of Torah, that went out with the troops into battle, and that on at least one occasion was captured with them. The Ark is always packed because only the Torah—our teachings and traditions, our laws and our stories—can never be taken away from us, need never be left behind and is our support in every age.
That lesson has been brought home to me of late. I, like most American Jews, do not know the experience of truly living out of a suitcase, or leaving without even a suitcase. For the past few months, I’ve been working with a synagogue in downtown Manhattan whose members know that experience firsthand, because they lived literally next door to the World Trade Center. Many had mere moments to flee their homes on September 11th, could not return for weeks, and have only recently been able to move back. And yet, in the week after the attack, they banded together to hold the High Holy Day services they had planned, with space and ritual objects generously lent by other area synagogues. These Jews had been forced to leave behind many things, whether they were their own personal possessions or even the synagogue’s ritual objects, but they found that the faith and commitment that they brought with them was something whose value they now appreciated all the more, something which brought them comfort at the most difficult of times. They bear witness to the statement of the midrash (B’midbar Rabbah 4:20) that it is not just Jewish people that carries the Ark, but the Ark that in fact carries the Jewish people.
Until our lives unfold, we don’t always realize what is permanent and what is a mishkan —a temporary structure. We don’t anticipate that many of our physical belongings mayhave to be packed up or left behind. George Carlin reminds us how easy it is to be caught up with all the “stuff” that we have accumulated, and how difficult it is to choose what to take in a moment of crisis. The rings of the ark remind us that there are some things that need no packing and are infinitely more valuable.
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat T’rumah have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.