What's the deal with all this construction stuff? Again?!? As if it wasn't bad enough that three weeks ago we spent an entire Torah portion talking about the details of the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the desert, this week's reading is basically a recapitulation of all the same material. It was sooo riveting the first time around, clearly we want to hear more about how the Israelites constructed the tent, the tables, the curtains, the lampstands, and all the furnishings...
Ok, so clearly I'm being a little facetious. It's true that our Torah portion is not the most riveting, but it does force us to think about how we relate to physical space. For a lot of people, prayer is spontaneous and inspired by an emotional reaction or experience. They feel it is easier to pray outside in nature, at the top of a mountain or by a beautiful river, rather than inside a "stuffy" sanctuary. An impulsive connection to God, however, may disappear as suddenly as it arrived. The advantage of a tangible space is that it is always there, it can provide stability, continuity, and comfort. Not only that, a structure can also tell a story.
Earlier this week, my wife, Rebecca, was telling me about a class she is taking towards her MA in City and Regional Planning. The class focuses on learning a mapping software program called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). GIS helps planners analyze, interpret, and question data related to neighborhoods and cities. But Rebecca also told me that planners learn that GIS "tells a story through spatial data analysis." I love that concept! You're not just studying trends, patterns, and maps on a computer screen; you're
uncovering a tale, an ongoing saga that narrates the past, present, and future of a particular place. In a way, the Torah, and this week's portion in particular, are an ancient form of GIS! We are given a spatial map of the Tabernacle which reads like a set of blueprints, yet in reality these few chapters are telling us the story of our people, how we prayed, and what it meant to connect with the Divine.
As I was thinking about constructions, and how they assist in telling tales, I couldn't help but relate it to the synagogue performance that we are putting on this week. If you're in the area, you should definitely come see the Ohev Shalom Musical, "Break
a Leg: A Tribute to Broadway." Our fabulous set designers and workers have transformed our auditorium into a lively and amazing theater. Through 20 different musical numbers, our stage will morph from the streets of an inner city, to the African savanna, to a small town in Poland, and much more! Acting and singing have a lot to do with it, of course, but our sets create a mood, conjure up an atmosphere, and function in part as narrator, helping to move the performance along. In many ways, this is exactly what the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) does for the ancient Israelites.
Our individual homes may indeed be doing the same thing for all of us, just as our communal buildings, schools, and libraries teach lessons about our neighborhoods. Never underestimate the importance of a solid structure or the history that comes with it. And certainly never underestimate the value of a good story; no matter who, or what, is telling it.