Crushed Spirits, Expansive Embrace

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781

Made of hammered gold,
surrounded by threads of crimson, of purple, of precious takhelet blue, 
the keruvim, the cherubim, yes Cherubs (!)
shimmer, hover, glisten over the cover to the tabernacle.
It’s such an ornate, exquisite moment of creativity, intentionality, skilled wisdom
as we finally reach the end of the book of Exodus
with a newly fashioned home for God.
And I’m watching these cherubs 
hover together with such beauty, practically kissing,
and wondering: 
Why are they so close to each other and not wearing a mask?
Are the cherubim in a pod? 
Gosh, I really hope they’re at least roommates.

You know what I’m talking about:
when you watch media from another time and your eyes pop out of your head.
It’s this pandemic exhaustion plus crushed spirits plus
the list of things that we are dreaming for:
like those Cherubim face to face over the tabernacle,
we long for greeting others with a kiss, handshakes, hugs,
blowing out birthday candles 
(ok, that ones out for good/spitting on your friends’ cake was never nice)
And the thing I grieve the most: 
Indian Buffets.
Crushed spirits, exhaustion, dreams,
oh my, what a journey this year has been.

It was this evening, 
Friday the 13th of March, 2020.
(I mean with a date like that..)
On that night a few souls 
who at the time we considered brave, but now realize
how incredibly uninformed, unsafe and ever naive we ALL were 
as we gathered in what now we call a socially distanced seating arrangement 
to celebrate Shabbat.
Afterwards I led a Riverway Shabbat service on Facebook live;
we had tried to Zoom to Facebook Live but didn’t know how to do that yet.
And the next morning, a young woman
was called to the Torah as Bat Mitzvah 
as her grandparents offered an Aliyah to Torah from Zoom;
as Rabbi Slipakoff and I led a hybrid,
now we call it mixed presence Torah study
with folks on Zoom and spaced out in the room.
And then we went home.
(But first I went to Whole Foods for a final pandemic freak out.)
And since then - from late night doom scrolling, 
to online zoom schooling, and tremendous isolation, 
from one Passover to our 2nd Pandemic Passover,
since then we have figured it out. 
We figured out how to build a sanctuary in our homes,
A place for God and community and holiness to dwell.
It has not been ideal, but at least now you can eat cookies 
during the V’ahavta, if you want to.
In one year - crushed spirits, exhaustion, dreams…
it has been quite the journey.

It has been quite the journey that leads us to this week’s double Torah portion, Vaya’khel-Pekudei
concluding the Book of Exodus and whetting our appetite for Passover
which starts in two weeks time.  
It seems like only yesterday our journey started. 
It was, in fact, January 9th, 2021, 
after a crushing week in our nation’s history
that we read Parashat Shemot 
(guided by Moses, Miriam and Representative Jamie Raskin)
that carried us on our Exodus journey,
where we encountered Pharoah
met defiant Egyptian midwives Shifra and Puah,
discover Moses brought forth from the Nile, 
raised in the palace by Pharaoh's daughter, witnessing injustice, 
noticing the plight of his people, committing violence, fleeing. 
He meets Tzipporah and Yitro and comes across a bush 
that is burning yet not consumed,
when he encounters God who also hears the plight of the people,
empowers Moses to go to Pharaoh, joined by Aaron, to redeem his people.
And that’s just the first portion of Exodus.
Crushed spirits, exhaustion, dreams…
What a journey!

Skip ahead a few weeks 
and Moses has gone from reluctant prophet worried he needs a better PR firm
to offering among the most concise statements in Jewish tradition:
Shalach Et Ami, “Let My People Go” 
And then the Passover story itself, 
from the 10 plagues to blood on the doorposts of houses 
so the Angel of Death will pass us over,
to escaping across the sea, 
to Miriam and her timbrels dancing on the other side.
Crushed spirits, exhaustion, dreams…
What a journey!

And then to wandering in the desert,
and don’t forget Charlton Heston, Mount Sinai,
the 10 commandments and building a Mishkan tabernacle 
with a blueprint even Gaudi would’ve found overwhelming!
What a long, arduous, exhausting journey to finish the tabernacle, 
built with the finest materials, Bezalel and Ohliab’s exquisite craftsmanship, 
and wisdom of hearts so moved  to craft a home where God might dwell,
designed with those two cherubs facing one to the other over the cover of the ark, 
getting a little too close for our pandemic-brain comfort. 
Crushed spirits, exhaustion, dreams…
What a journey, how far they have come - and how much further there is to go.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you/Slash I hate to break it to you:
there’s at least three more books of Torah
and even then we don’t get to make it to the Promised Land 
until the Book of Joshua in the prophetic texts…
and not everyone will get to go.

But here’s where our ancient story and our modern story must diverge:
You see - throughout Exodus 
and in the wilderness, Bamidbar of the book of Numbers
the Israelites complain all the time, longing for “the comforts” of Egypt,
for the familiarity of enslavement, 
because they suffer, the sages teach from Miktzar Ruach
Tzar - narrow; like Mitzryaim - Egypt.
Their spirits are narrow and crushed, exhausted:
Sound familiar?

I learned from Rabbi Aviva Richman of Hadar this week, 
that the sages say the Israelites are crushed for numerous reasons: 
they are preoccupied with the severe weight of the journey they’ve already taken, 
they have no bandwidth to pay any further attention, 
they are worried, they are terrified it will get worse, 
they fear what freedom might require of them.
And from this crushed, narrow world view, they just cannot see the future.
Take us back to Egypt, they cry out!

Perhaps you feel that way about Passover this year.
Why bother?
I’ve thought about all sorts of random objects 
we could place on the seder plate this year to symbolize 
how our hearts, our dreams, our lives have been crushed.
Perhaps it calls for a double portion of bitter herbs,
and an equal reminder not to lick our finger after dipping into wine
to recall the terrible plagues, lest we enjoy sweetness from other’s pain...
But our spirits are crushed and we are exhausted…
So, how do we see the future? 
the sages offer antidotes to our exhausted, crushed spirits.
Unsurprisingly, it includes Torah and Mitzvot (Commandments). 
But they then move on to suggesting a path I think is additionally helpful:
which is that however we move forward,
it needs to be incremental, 
in small steps,
to rebuild stamina.
I know for folks who are vaccinated you want to run that social life marathon again,
and hug the living daylights out of grandchildren, or family, or friends.
Step by step, slowly but surely, it will come!
But I also want us to remember this:
there were aspects of life before the pandemic that were not working for us:
from how much we work to how little we play, 
to how unequally our systems are weighted against marginalized people, 
to stigma around mental health,
to how little we acknowledged the value of teachers, of frontline workers, 
of the issues for women in the workplace.
It wasn’t enslavement, to be sure, but it needed fixing.
In some ways this has been a holy sabbatical, a global resetting, 
an unprecedented chance for communal reflection,
structural change, and deep self learning, 
a chance to shed things in our lives that were required of us, but not serving us well.
And I’m thinking ideas, relationships and also jeans. (I gave mine away this week.)
Easy does it, the sages remind us, 
Never give up the comfy pants, they whisper across the centuries. 

And so finally, here we are in this week’s double Torah portion.
The tabernacle is completed, built by hearts of wisdom,
with brilliant colors, sacred vessels, exquisite vestments,  
and those two cherubs glimmering in their holy place.
(Don’t worry, they’ve been vaccinated.)

My what a journey it has been!
Yes, we are crushed, Yes, we are exhausted, 
Yes, our bandwidth - even our WIFI - is tapped,
And Yes, we have lost and sadly will continue to lose so many more along the way…

But someday we will teach the next generations of proverbial children to ask
“How is this night, this Passover, different from all others?”
Well, this year it won’t be.
But next year, it will come!
And next year, the answer to those questions is embedded
in those very cherubs, those keruvim,
the root is karov, meaning to draw near. 
For then we will gather to celebrate a new redemption, 
rebuilding a life to which we truly want to return, 
Chazak, Chazak, we say when we conclude a book of Torah,
Chazak, Chazak, V’nit’chazeik
May this vision of hope strengthen us until that time
And it will come (!) 
When we can draw near,
finally holding our friends and our loved ones 
in an expansive embrace. 

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