A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Beha'alotekha
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
With gratitude to Rabbi Enid Lader for pointing me to these teachings.
On the day that the Mishkan [portable Tabernacle/Temple] was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Mishkan with the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the Eternal, the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Eternal, they made camp, they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. (Numbers 9:15-19)
In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotekha, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as The Slominer Rebbe (1911-2000), recalls the first invitation to the Israelites to build the Mishkan. In Exodus 25:8 the Eternal tells Moses, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” Many commentators point to this use of language to indicate that this sacred space was not meant to create an external home for God but rather, to create a place for each person to experience a connection with the Eternal. The Slonimir goes on to teach: “The Mishkan was not a one-time building project, but it is something that every Jewish person must build within themselves each and every day, a special place in one’s life where they make space for the influence of God’s Presence.” In other words, we are called upon, every day, to create the internal conditions that will enable an experience of connection with the Divine Mystery.
These are pretty words, but how do we do so?
Judaism gives us many spiritual tools to create this kind of inner Mishkan, such as prayer, meditation, learning, and ritual practices. A simple prayer practice that begins and ends our days with gratitude helps to anchor our awareness in the blessings that permeate our daily lives. This is the perhaps the most fundamental purpose of prayer. Prayer expands and rarifies our awareness of connection and develops the qualities of awe, humility, and gratitude. Open any siddur (prayerbook) and you will find an endless array of prayers to offer.
Nevertheless, we all have resistances to creating a regular spiritual practice, no matter how lovely and useful it may sound. The Slonimir sees hints in this section of Torah that describes the natural resistances we all encounter. He comments on the image of the cloud that covers the Mishkan and which doesn’t allow the camp to move forward. The cloud is a metaphor for the resistance we encounter when we try to work on ourselves. By day it may feel like a cloud has descended upon us, blocking any forward motion, and by night the resistance to change can burn like a fire. And yet, Torah also shows us that when the cloud or the fire would lift off of the Mishkan, the Jewish people would move forward in their journeys.
Each of us has the capacity to build an internal sanctuary, a makom, a place for the Divine Presence to dwell. That is, we each have the capacity to create a centered, balanced, and loving inner state, so that the Divine Presence may be expressed through us. But it takes a commitment to some regular spiritual practice, one that helps us to open our awareness to the blessings in our lives and the profound ways in which all is connected. Our tradition offers us many gifts to do so. This is the gift of Shabbat, the gift of our prayer practice, the gift of the 6-word prayer, the Sh’ma. Jewish ritual practice is replete with spiritual tools for connecting and expanding our awareness, for building an inner Mishkan. The task is aleinu– on us- to do so.
My colleague Rabbi Enid Lader writes: as we make our way on our life’s journey, there will be times that are cloud-covered, or even burning with the fire of doubt and despair. These times are indeed challenging to navigate; times when we have to stop and reassess. (But) When we allow ourselves to awaken to the gifts and blessings that surround us, connecting us to others and to the transcendent Presence beyond us, the cloud and the fires lift – and onwards and upwards we go.