Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat HaChodesh 5781
On the Anniversary of the Pandemic: The Scraps with Which we Build
Vayakhel-Pekudei 2021, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin
Wow, we’ve been building the Mishkan for a long time. For chapters and chapters, we’ve been getting the instructions for how to build the Tabernacle, our traveling sanctuary in the wilderness. And then, in a verse we probably skim past on most years – this week we learn that the Mishkan is constructed on the first day of the first month of the second year. Or, put differently, the Mishkan is built the day after the one-year anniversary of our ancestors leaving Egypt for the wilderness.
And here we are, at our own one-year anniversary of being in this pandemic wilderness. And though this isn’t a common reading, I wonder if maybe our ancestors built the Mishkan also to mark one year of feeling lost, scared, disconnected. Reconnected, but differently. To pause to grieve everyone they’d lost along the way, and it was a lot for them, too. A year earlier, they had left a very imperfect world, but one that they understood, not knowing where they were going or how long it would take, and now they look forward and still don’t know what’s ahead. But they know it’s been one year of this new world, so they build this thing to hold the space and tell their story.
One year later, it’s helpful to look back at our year and consider it and try to understand it or make meaning.
But the Mishkan they built was beautiful and encased with gold. There were colorful tapestries and gems that glittered in the sun and dolphin skins, smooth and shimmering. Do we have something to build here as a monument to our grief and fear, our resilience, our adaptability, our endurance, as Rabbi Timoner called it last night? Do we have a fancy story to tell, wrapped in gold, holy enough to be a space that lets God in?
What if our hindsight looks a lot like something broken and our foresight is hesitant, at best? What should we build out of that? What if we didn’t learn how to bake the perfect challah or all that extra time with our kids wasn’t like an 80’s sitcom or someone we love died and we are angry and have cried a lot this year? What if we feel exhausted, and just done with a pandemic that is not yet done with us. What if we don’t have conclusions – and instead we have illusions of the year we wished we had, but instead we have missed simchas and friends, and kids who are so lonely, they don’t remember what not-lonely feels like. After a year and one day, our ancestors built the Mishkan…do we have something that beautiful to build on our year anniversary? Maybe.
This week, we read how Moses and our people finally complete the building of the Mishkan. Torah gives us a fairly straightforward account of how this went. God gives Moses the instructions. Moses gives them to Betzalel, and then with the help of all the people, they construct this portable ark.
But the rabbis of the midrash choose to complicate matters. To breathe some real emotion and human experience into these events. The midrash tells us that the way that God showed Moses what he was to build was by projecting the image of the mishkan across the entire side of the mountain in blazing red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire. God said – build it to look like this!
And Moses answers: Oh God, where am I going to get red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire? That’s great, but we only have what we have here in our tents, and we are all out of fiery mountainside. The rabbis teach that God answers: “U’reh va’aseh b’tavnitam asher atah mareh bahar” – “Look and see, and build it after the pattern – the tavnit – that is shown to you on the mountain.” Just use this as a basic idea. Build it, as best you can with what you have, and it will be beautiful. God says: “I have stars above, you have clasps below. I have standing angels, you have standing planks of wood.” Get as close to this vision as you can and, God says, if you do, “I will come from my place in the heavens to dwell among you.”
So why do the rabbis add this dialogue between a frustrated Moses and flexible God? Maybe because they want us to know that the Mishkan was not a perfect and tidy homage to a year of hardship overcome. It was scrappy and piecemeal and hard won. It didn’t tell the story as a fairytale. It told the story that was real.
They did the best they could with what they had – and that was enough. The Mishkan was made up of the scraps – and sometimes very beautiful scraps – of a year that was nothing of what they expected it to be and which had tested them completely. And Moses said “we can’t give you something wrapped in a bow.” And God said “I know. Why would I want that?”
So maybe we have something to build now to mark this anniversary that is exactly as glittery and beautiful as the Mishkan. We have some extraordinary scraps. And some jagged and sharp scraps to build with, too, as we mark this year.
We have these materials to bring. We who soothed ourselves by a new hobby or inviting a new sourdough starter into our home. We who walked in flowers and snow and mountains, who developed insomnia, who helped our neighbors, we who haven’t unclenched our jaw muscles in 365 days. We have these materials with which to build an anniversary marker. We who cried silent tears after the kids were in bed. We who missed a year of grandparents and grandkids. We who drew rainbows in windows and who clapped at 7pm without fail. We who protested injustice in ways we never had before. We have materials to bring. We who enjoy never wearing shoes. We who learned to meditate. We who are depleted and anxious and learned to medicate. We who weirdly laughed a lot this year, too. We have materials to bring to mark this day. We who read 100 books, we who didn’t make it through one. We who lost our jobs and we who worry that we still might. We who lost precious chances for conception. We who found beauty in the cracks and corners of our city. We who love our spouses or our singleness, but who also can’t take the sound of their chewing, or the sound of the silence, another second. We have materials to bring. They aren’t shiny. They aren’t mint condition. They are rough. They don’t look like the picture on the box – that box, which now holds the dirty masks we take off when we come in the door. They vaguely resemble something holy, though, and they tell our story, and they are enough. They do the work of remembering and honoring and projecting into a future – of standing still in one place and saying, we have survived this year. And that is holy in mishkanic proportions.
And maybe this seems like a copout, something we tell kids to make them feel better – that to make an effort, to bring what we’ve got, is good enough. Well, the Mishkan comes with a promise that if we build it well, God will dwell among us. So, is this a rabbinic copout or is it real?
From the end of our parsha: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and – k’vod Adonai male’ et hamishkan – the Presence of God, filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Mishkan, because the Presence of God filled it.
This portion ends not with a whimper, but with a bang. Once the Mishkan is complete – as soon as that last piece is attached, it whirs to life. It beats. It breathes. It becomes our compass, our protector, our communication threshold with the divine. Made with the work of flawed hands and the materials of imperfect beings with undigested experiences, it probably looks nothing like the picture on the mountainside. But God loves it so much that God fills the space with God’s presence so extensively that Moses can’t even squeeze inside it anymore.
On this year anniversary, when we are already thinking back to one year ago, may we tell our truths and honor them. May we listen to each other’s realities and love each other whatever we are. May we weave together a vision that is beautiful because it is true, because it is the best we have right now, and it is enough. And there, may we feel uplifted and less alone, full with a divine presence that can’t possibly stay away. And may our Mishkan also be our vehicle to guide us into whatever is ahead. Amen.