Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Zachor 5781 D’var Torah

There’s a guy in Texas who owns a furniture company. His name is Jim Mcingvale. Maybe you’ve seen some reporting about this story. He has this huge warehouse store and when it became clear that Texans were in serious trouble, without electricity or heat or water, he opened his store to anyone who needed refuge. Seniors and kids sitting on his mattresses and recliners. Children curled up on their parents on his couches, watching his televisions. He’s not even worried that their shoes are all over his furniture. He was worried that they were alone and freezing and afraid and out of options with no one to come help them.

I know, I’m such a sucker for a feel-good story. I am absolutely their core audience and I would buy so much furniture from this guy if I ever had the chance to. But it’s not just a feel-good story, ya know? There’s something in this story that pulls us toward it. That wakes us and reminds us of some ancient wisdom that we’ve known all along.

Other leaders in Texas have written callous pieces chastising people, saying they should figure out how to take care of their own family and stop asking for a handout. But Jim flips on this humanity switch, pulls this holiness trigger, and somehow reminds us that it’s possible to live in a world of communal furniture stores even as we face catastrophes out of our control.

We who have lived now almost a year in a pandemic that is way out of our control, are reminded of the power of human connection.
This week, in parshat Terumah, we read about the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, which we are instructed, by God, through Moses, to build for our travels in the wilderness. It will be a carrying case for the ark of the covenant. It will be the conduit for our connecting with God during our 40 year journey. It will be the first thing we create together that’s not about who we were in Egypt, but is about who we want to become.

To build the thing, Moses tells the people to bring gifts as their heart so moves them. We build it together, each person bringing their unique materials or skills to the design. The mishkan is an all hands on deck project and in many ways, that seems to be it’s real purpose – to get us to build something together. For our working collectively, God tells us, v’shachanti b’tocham – God will dwell among us. We make it a place that God wants to be and then God comes and be’s there.
And that would be enough. Jim clearly contributed his gift to the building of and the protection of his community. But there is something more here. Something at the center of this furniture store story and the center of the mishkan. Actually it’s at the literal, physical center of the mishkan.

See, after the initial instructions about how to build the mishkan, the text tells us how they were to build the box that would sit at the center of the mishkan, which would house the covenant given to us on Mount Sinai. It says: You shall make a cover, for this box, of pure gold. Make two cherubim – angels – at the two ends of the cover. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover. Uf’neihem ish el achiv. The English translation we tend to use, says: They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. But the Hebrew “uf’neiheim ish el achiv,” actually means: They shall face each other like a man to his brother.

So if you can picture this – at the center of the mishkan is two beings who are gazing at one another. Not haphazardly, not past each other, but the way a person looks at his own brother. And then God tells them, “THAT is where I will meet with you. Between the two faces.”
Where does divine energy vibrate the hardest? What is the most powerful place in the universe, so powerful that human and divine meet? It’s between two faces, in the gaze between two people who see each other ish el achiv, as brothers. As sisters. As people. As someone who matters to them, someone who has a claim on them. It happens when we look another person in the eyes and really see them. And care what happens to them.

The philosopher Emanuel Levinas teaches that the moment we look someone in the eyes, we become obligated to them. Responsible for them, for their safety, for their wholeness.

Martin Buber writes that this encounter between two people who really see one another – is transformational. That each person leaves it with something More in them. Capital M, more. He tells us this is the Sinai moment, when two people recognize the humanity in one another.

I think we’re drawn to stories of human kindness not just because they are sweet, but because they tingle in us something fundamental in what it means to be human and in relationship with the other. That when we do busy ourselves in each other’s lives, when we do worry that someone else might be cold, afraid, isolated, despairing – and we make it our business to do something about that – that we access something greater than ourselves. Or maybe we manifest something greater than ourselves.

The anemic bitterness of one who would say: deal with it by yourself – your mess, your problem – is dwarfed by the emotional uplift that is so apparent when we cast our lots together. The power of the space between two people who obligate themselves to each other is so compelling that our tradition calls it God. That’s amazing to me.

In preparing for today, I reread my sermon on Terumah from last year and it kind of gutted me. It was last February and it was the first time I shared a d’var Torah about the coronavirus with the Union Temple community. We were preparing for the shocking idea that we might have to lockdown for 1-3 weeks. We had no idea what was ahead of us. And we’ve had to learn a lot this year. But maybe what we’ve learned most is uf’neihem ish el achiv . . . How much we’d come to need one another and count on one another. And just how sacred that work of connecting would be.

So parshat Terumah draws us back toward this truth – because honestly, it’s easy to forget it, or be so overwhelmed by the “hard” of this time that we lose the pulse of and the power of that kind of connecting and caring for each other. Furniture store levels of caring.

It reminds us that we each get to answer this question daily: who is the angel, the brother or sister or cousin or friend or neighbor or stranger, that I will face today? That I will see and be obligated to, today? That I will tend to and care for like they are my brother. Such that the space between us will feel as if something divine is there. May we meet and be that face again as soon as today. Amen.