Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” (Exodus 25:10)

When I was a child, my parents’ bedroom was totally off-limits to me. The only time I ever went in there was occasionally when I was sick, and my mom would let me lie in her bed. Otherwise, I never crossed the threshold into their room. I guess they were better parents than me. I have many memories of when my children were young, waking up to find them sleeping on our floor, or even crawling into our bed.
The idea that a place is off-limits makes it special; religious people may even use the word “holy.” In synagogue we have multiple activities throughout the building. But the sanctuary is kept closed except for worship services and other special activities. We must dress nicely in the sanctuary, not eat or drink, and men (and sometimes women) are expected to cover their heads. And at the front of the sanctuary is the holy ark. No one may step into the ark except at those sacred moments when we remove or return the Torah scrolls.
This week introduces the idea of a holy space. The Israelites are commanded to build a portable tabernacle which they will carry through the wilderness. In the center of the tabernacle is the Holy of Holies, where the tablets of the covenant will be kept. (After the Golden Calf, it will be both the broken and unbroken tablets.) This tabernacle will become the model for the holy Temple in Jerusalem, which King Solomon will build. There are different areas of the Temple where different people are allowed to enter. There is a section for everyone including non-Jews, a section for women, and finally a section for the kohenim or priests. But in the Holy of Holies, at the center of the Temple, only the High Priest can enter.
Today’s synagogues are built following the pattern of the tabernacle and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The ark has become the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space in Judaism. One stands when the ark is open and avoids turning one’s back to the ark. It establishes a key idea in our tradition, that not all locations are the same. Many religions have sacred spaces. Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca, Hindus have the River Ganges, and Shintu’s have Mt. Fuji. And Jews build synagogues in such a way that when they pray, they face towards their holiest place – Jerusalem.
In the recent negotiations with Hamas for the release of the hostages, Hamas made a demand that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem be off-limits to Jews. Israel would never agree to this demand. Yet I remember touring Israel shortly after the Six Day War, and visiting the Western Wall, liberated by that war. I thought about going up to the Temple Mount, but there was a large sign, “No Jews Allowed.” It was not put there by Arab authorities. It was put there by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. They were concerned that if a Jew went up there, he or she might accidently step into the area where the Holy of Holies was. Even after the Temple was destroyed, this holiest place was off-limits to Jews.
In our tradition, we speak about the separation between kodesh and hol, between the holy and the profane. There are holy places, holy times, and holy relationships. I have often remarked that we live in a world that has lost its sense of holiness. We need to consider whether there are places, either at home, in our community, or somewhere in the world that are truly set apart and special. Whether our bedroom, a spot in a nearby park, or a holy place overseas, can we find places where we sense, God dwells here?

“Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the tablets that I will give you.” (Exodus 25:21)

Let me begin with a cute story. The Pope decides to visit New York City. The Diocese arranges a limo with a driver to take the Pope to all his appearances. On the last day, when the Pope is preparing to leave the city, he turns to his driver and says, “As Pope, I never get to drive anymore. On this last day, can we switch places. Let me drive.” So the driver climbs into the back and the Pope climbs behind the wheel.
The Pope is not a very good driver and soon a police car pulls the limo over. The officer walks over to the limo, then quickly calls the precinct office. “I need your help. I do not know how to handle this. I pulled someone over who must be extremely important. I do not know who they are, but their Limo driver is the Pope.”
When I first heard that story, I thought about a course on Biblical religion I took many years ago. The professor was trying to describe Biblical holiness. He said, “Imagine a stretch limo with darkened windows. You do not know who is in there, but it must be someone extremely important, a politician or celebrity. So they keep themselves covered up.” His point is that covering up and keeping something private is a way we set things apart and make them important. We declare something is holy by covering it up.
Imagine a Torah scroll lying uncovered in a synagogue. Anybody with a minimum of Jewish knowledge would walk over and cover up the Torah. It would be improper to leave a Torah scroll uncovered. When not in use, we keep the Torah scrolls in an ark with a curtain to keep them covered. (In this sad time, many of us also keep alarms on the doors of our ark to prevent anyone from stealing the Torah scrolls, or the silver ornaments we use to decorate them.) Holiness comes from covering up.
The source of the idea is this week’s Torah portion. God commands the Israelites to build a portable tabernacle, a symbol of God’s presence as they travel through the wilderness. At the center of the tabernacle is a special ark, known as the Holy of Holies. The tablets of the Ten Commandments are kept in that ark. And over the ark is a special covering, kept over the Holy of Holies. The cover is made of pure gold, showing how valuable it is. Today in synagogue, we often make a beautiful, elaborate parochet, the curtain we hang in the ark to cover the Torahs.
In my new novel, The Rabbi’s Sex Class, I use the example of covering a Torah to teach teens the importance of covering up. The Hebrew phrase for forbidden sexual relationships is gilui arayot, “uncovering one’s nakedness.” Often in this age of casual sex and “hooking up,” we are too quick to uncover. In the book I speak about the Jewish view that sex ought to be holy. But holiness can only happen if people stay covered up, until they are with the right person in the right place. The rabbi who is the main character of the novel urges his students to stay covered up. Of course, because it is a novel, several of them do not listen to him.
The Bible speaks of the importance of kedusha or holiness. Holiness means set apart and made special, not accessible to everyone. I suppose that is the reason my religion professor used the example of the limousine with tinted windows. It certainly sets its passengers apart. According to the Bible, certain times, certain places, and certain relationships are considered holy. And holiness begins by covering up. In this age of social media, where we allow everything to hang out, where we share everything online, perhaps there is a valuable message in the gold curtain from this week’s portion. Some things belong covered up.


“Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you.”  (Exodus 25:8)

We lost a great American actor recently.  Sidney Poitier, the first black American to win a Best Actor Academy Award, died in January at the age of 94.  As a teenager I remember watching many of his films including In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir with Love.  The film which sticks most strongly in my mind is the one for which he won the Oscar, Lilies of the Field.

The film came out in 1963 so I must have been a young teenager when I saw it.  But I still can picture the rousing song Amen from the film.  It tells the story of a handyman Homer Smith who befriends a group of refugee nuns in the Arizona desert.  They convince him to build them a chapel, which he at first refuses.  They cannot afford to pay him.  They quote Jesus from the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, not to think about money.  “Consider the lilies of field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin, And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”  (Matthew 6:28 -29).   Although he does not share their faith, eventually he gives in and builds the nuns their chapel.

It is strange to vividly remember a movie I saw over fifty years ago.  Maybe I was meant to be a religious leader, for something about that this movie resonated with me.  Perhaps it was this black, Baptist handyman and this group of German refugee nuns working together to do God’s work.  God dwells not simply in the chapel but in the people working together to build the chapel.

This point is made explicitly in the beginning of this week’s portion.  God gives Moses instructions on the building of a portable sanctuary to carry through the wilderness.  God says, “Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you.”  Note that it does not say to build a sanctuary so God could dwell in it.  God does not dwell in a building.  No building is big enough to hold God.  Rather God dwells in the people working together, each contributing their part, to build the building.

This is true not only for the ancient sanctuary in the wilderness or a chapel built for a movie in the Arizona desert.  It is true for our own synagogue, and every other synagogue and house of worship.  A synagogue is not simply a building.  I have seen too many buildings standing empty.  Rather it is people working together, each taking on a role, to make that synagogue function and flourish.  If people ask where God dwells in our synagogue, I will answer that God does not dwell with the Torahs in the ark.  God dwells in the people working day and night so that our synagogue continues to run.

There is another hint of this idea in the portion.  The portable sanctuary contains the Holy of Holies, a closed off compartment containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  But  God does not speak to Moses from this Holy of Holies.  Rather God speaks to Moses from between the faces of the Cherubim, often pictured as two winged children face-to-face.  God is present not in some holy place but amongst holy people.  When people are working together, God’s presence dwells among them.

1963 was the year of my bar mitzvah.  At that time, I never dreamed I would become a rabbi.  Who knows what influenced me to choose this path.  I am sure there were many factors.  But looking backwards, perhaps one of the influences was an Academy Award winning movie about a handyman and a group of nuns, coming from very different worlds, working together to build a house of God.


“Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.”  (Exodus 25:8)

This portion describes the detailed building of a portable sanctuary (mishkan) which the Israelites would carry through the desert.  Within this sanctuary God would meet Moses.  It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence among the people.  The sanctuary became the model for the great Temple (mikdash) King Solomon built in Jerusalem.  And Solomon’s Temple became the model for the synagogues Jews would build wherever they would dwell.

The ancient portable sanctuary became a way to sanctify space.  The sanctuary was holy and in the center was the Holy of Holies where the tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept.  The great Temple also had a Holy of Holies where only the high priest could enter, and only on Yom Kippur.  In our synagogues the holiest space is the ark, in which we keep the Torah scrolls.  The message is that the Jewish people can create holy space, physical areas sanctified and set apart from other spaces.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, rabbi and philosopher, wrote a book called The Sabbath describing the power of the seventh day.  He compared the Sabbath to the building of the tabernacle.  He called it a “tabernacle in time.”  Rather than sanctifying space, each week Jews sanctify time.  In fact, the same activities used by the ancient Israelites to build the sanctuary in space (melachot) are the activities Jews avoid when building this sanctuary in time.  Judaism has always understood the relationship between space and time.

How should we understand space and time?  The founder of modern physics, Isaac Newton, saw space as a great empty stage on which events take place.  He saw time as a universal clock clicking away from the distant past to the distant future.  Space and time would exist even if nothing else did.  They are the arena in which everything happens.

Newton’s nemesis, the brilliant philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz disagreed.   (Newton and Leibniz disagreed on many things, including who invented calculus.  They both did. separately.)   To Leibniz, space only exists with the presence of matter.   Time only exists with the presence of motion.  There is no empty space and time, only space and time filled with activities and events.  This is the space and time that we can sanctify.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant radically rethought all of knowledge.  He taught that we can never know what space and time are in the real world (the noumenal world.)  We can only know space and time in our own perceptions (the phenomenal world).  Space and time exist in the mind of an observer.  We humans perceive space and time.  Kant’s revolutionary ideas would lead directly to Albert Einstein.

Einstein developed his theory of relativity by thinking about observers.  One observer can see two events happening at the same time in two different locations in space.  A second observer, moving relative to the first, can see the same two events happening at the same location but at different times.  Space and time are relative.  Einstein, building on the mathematical idea of his friend Hermann Minkowski, combined them.  There is neither space nor time, but rather space-time.  Deep down, space and time are part of the same entity.

Heschel already compared space and time.  But Jewish tradition seems to have recognized Einstein’s ideas millennia before Einstein was born.  The Hebrew word for all of space (the universe) is olam.   The Hebrew word for all of time (eternity) is olam.   The Hebrew language recognized that, in some fundamental way, space and time are the same thing.  Perhaps Einstein’s Jewish upbringing, although not the most religious, helped with this insight.

We Jews sanctify space, setting apart physical areas that are holy.  We Jews sanctify time, setting aside days on the calendar that are holy.  As the rabbi Heschel and the physicist Einstein recognized, perhaps they are both part of the same thing.


“And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and shall make upon it a rim of gold around it.”  (Exodus 25:11)

There are issues today that my parents and grandparents never dreamed about.  In fact, twenty years ago I never dreamed about them.  Judaism is a decidedly binary religion.  There are men and there are women, with different obligations under Jewish law.  We have become egalitarian, moving towards greater and greater participation by women in roles once reserved for men.  But Judaism still is binary.  And in fact, our entire culture is binary.  When I buy an airplane ticket, I must check off “male” or “female,” one or the other.  There is no check for “other.”

How do I as a rabbi understand people who were born male, but see themselves as female and are transitioning?  How do I as a rabbi understand people who were born female, but see themselves as male and are transitioning?  How do I as a rabbi understand people whose physical selves are one gender and psychological selves are another gender?  And perhaps even more complex, how do I as a rabbi relate to people who do not wish to identify with any gender at all, who are not “he” or “she” but “they.”

There is a wonderful insight about this complex issue that grows out of this week’s Torah portion.  The Torah speaks of the building of a portable tabernacle carried through the wilderness, and at the center of that tabernacle was an ark.  The Torah teaches that the ark was overlain with gold, not simply on the outside but on the inside.  One can understand gold on the outside where everybody can see it.  But why overlay the inside where no one can see it?  If you go into the most elaborate hotel with a fancy decorated lobby, and you go behind the walls where only employees are allowed, the décor becomes much more primitive.  We decorate the outside but not the inside.

The classical answer in Judaism is an ethical one – tocho k’baro damei, “the inside of a person should match their outside.”  Our behavior on the outside should match our inner selves.  This is a beautiful teaching.  But there is another way to understand the outside and the inside.  (I want to thank Dr. Randy Silbiger for this insight.)  A person’s outer self should match their inner self.  It in one’s inner self one feels a particular gender, then their outer self ought to reflect that same gender.  And if that means transitioning from one gender to another, this verse seems to support it.

Many people are surprised to learn that Jewish tradition does not see gender as binary.  There is male and female.  But there is also what the rabbis call androgynous, which has the sexual organs of both a male and a female.  And there is also what the rabbis call tumtum, which means the gender is undetermined.  The Rabbis hold long discussions about these variations.  For example, the Mishnah teaches that an androgynous and a tumtum take on all the stringencies of both men and women. (Zavim 2:1)  The Midrash says that humanity was originally androgynous, but God split the man and the woman.  (This idea also appears in Plato; Judaism probably borrowed it from the Greeks.)

Many traditionalists say that God has divided the world into male and female, and we humans ought not to interfere with God’s plan.  Nonetheless, this same argument can be used against any kind of medical care.  Dare I say that sometimes God gets it wrong.  Sometimes a male soul ends up in a female body or vice versa.  One of my favorite teachings on this issue has nothing to do with transgender, but rather the laws of fasting on Yom Kippur.  If a doctor says that someone can fast on Yom Kippur, but they feel they cannot, they do not need to fast.  In fact, if one hundred doctors say they can fast, but they feel they cannot, they do not need to fast.  Why?  Because “the heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10).  People in their own heart know who they really are and what they need to do for their own fulfillment.

It is vital to say that all human beings, including those who are cisgender (comfortable with their birth gender), transgender (identifying with the opposite gender), or non-gender, are created in the image of God.  All deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
It happens on a regular basis. Someone who rarely if ever sets foot in my synagogue will come by to show me the pictures of a synagogue they visited overseas. Whether in the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, or even Asia, they are excited to show me pictures of a synagogue in a faraway city. I tell them the pictures are lovely, but we have a beautiful synagogue right here at home.
I understand. An important part of being a Jew is finding the places which Jews call home. We all know that Jews can hold worship services anywhere, in a restaurant, a hotel, or even a private home. But the presence of a building with a Jewish star takes on a great importance, even in places where such synagogues are surrounded by numerous security guards. We Jews, like our Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, and Hindu neighbors, want to feel that “there’s a place for us.” We want a physical building.
The beginning of the concept of a Jewish building is in this week’s portion. As the people prepare to leave Mt. Sinai, God tells Moses to build a portable sanctuary. At the center would be the Holy of Holies, which would contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments. (It would contain both the complete tablets and the broken tablets.) It also contains an altar, a seven-branched menorah, and walls made of curtains. The key idea is that it was a portable sanctuary, which the Israelites carried as they wandered through the desert. The Torah teaches that the Israelites should build the tabernacle and God would dwell among them. (Note that it does not say God will dwell “in it” but that God will dwell “among them;” when we do God’s work God dwells among us.)
The portable tabernacle became the model for the great Temple which King Solomon would build in Jerusalem. It became the holy center of Jewish life. Like the portable tabernacle, it contained the Holy of Holies in the center which housed the Ten Commandments. (What became of this holy ark? This is the theme of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and then destroyed again by the Romans in 70 C.E. Jews throughout the world mourn the loss of the Temple and pray for it to be rebuilt. At least many Jews do. Other Jews believe that we do not need a Temple anymore.
The synagogue is called a mikdash me-at, a “small temple.” Built all over the world, synagogues are built around a holy ark. But today the ark contains the scrolls of the Torah. The synagogue is the place throughout the world that Jews call home. Reform Jews believe `that synagogues have replaced the Temple in Jerusalem. They will often call their synagogues temples. Among more traditional Jews, the word “temple” is reserved for the Temple in Jerusalem. They prefer the word congregation or synagogue. On a personal level, I have never understood why conservative synagogues in Florida call themselves temples. I always prefer to use the term “temple” to refer to the Temple.
Do we want to see the great Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt in our day? It is certainly part of our prayers. We say each day, “May it be Your will, our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our day.” Among the very Orthodox, there is a yeshiva where descendants of the kohenim, the ancient priests, study the arcane laws of animal sacrifice to be ready when the Temple is rebuilt. Nonetheless, The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites, sits on the Temple Mount. Political reality would prevent the Temple from being built any time soon. Nonetheless, the memory of the ancient Temple and the dream of a future Temple is a major part of the Jewish hope for the Messianic Age.
Whether the ancient tabernacle carried through the desert, the great Temple in Jerusalem, or synagogues both modest and lofty built in cities throughout the world, we Jews need a place. Building a synagogue gives a powerful message that we are part of the community. There’s a place for us.

“You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work, its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece.” (Exodus 25:31)
This portion begins the careful description of a portable tabernacle or shrine to be carried through the wilderness. Later this tabernacle would become the inspiration for the building of the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. The Israelites needed a place of worship, a place which symbolized God’s presence in their midst. And one of the most important features of this tabernacle was the building of a lampstand or menorah.
This menorah had seven branches to symbolize the seven days of the week. (Technically, what we light on Hanukkah is not a menorah at all. It has nine branches and is called a Hanukkiah.) The menorah became one of the most powerful symbols of Judaism. When the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple, he carried the menorah back to Rome. Its picture is shown on the Roman Arch of Titus to this day. Unfortunately, the original menorah itself has disappeared. Some believe that the menorah still exists hidden in the Vatican, and there have been multiple requests to return it to Israel. The disappearance of the menorah remains a mystery.
The menorah was extremely intricate. Each of the seven branches was carefully designed, with cups, leaves, and flowers. What I find fascinating is that this entire sculpture was made of a solid block of gold, based on images shown to Moses on the mountain. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, writes, “one should not make it of separate pieces nor shall its branches or its lamps as a separate limb, a work called soldering. But it was made from one piece of gold. He beat it with a hammer and cut away with the implements of his craft, making the branches spread out this way and that.” I find this image of the artisan creating this piece of art out of a solid block of gold amazing.
In a sense, it reminds me of a famous remark by the great Italian artist and sculptor Michelangelo. Perhaps his most celebrated sculpture is the statue of David. According to a well-known story which may be apocryphal, the Pope asked Michelangelo the secret of his genius. Michelangelo answered, “It is simple. I look at the marble and chip away everything that isn’t David.” The great artist can see the true David hidden in a piece of marble, like the great artist saw the true menorah hidden in a block of gold.
Many motivational speakers and preachers have used this story as a guide for how we ought to live our lives. Each of us has a true self which makes up who we really are and the kind of person we ought to become. But that true self is buried in a covering which is not our true self. We are all artists and we are all blocks of marble or gold. Our job in life is to chip away at the parts of us which are fake, and which cover up who we really are. Only then can we reveal our authentic selves. It is quite a lovely metaphor for finding who we are.
The Torah later names Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Judah as the artist who created the tabernacle. The Torah said that God gave him divine skill (literally “the spirit of God,” see Exodus 38:31) to do this creative work. Today there is a famous art school in Jerusalem called the Bezalel Academy named for him. It is a gift from God to look at a block of gold and see the image of seven branched menorah within it. Michelangelo also had that gift of seeing David in a block of marble. I am convinced that to be an artist is to have gifts from God, gifts that come from a certain spiritual place. For example, Mozart’s music almost flowed out of him, even when he was a child. Artists have that gift.
However, if the motivational speakers are right, we all have that gift. We all can see our authentic selves under all the false coverings. We have that ability to carve away everything that is not our true selves, to create ourselves. To create ourselves is the work of an artist. Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt put it best in a wonderful quote: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

“There I will meet with you, and I will talk with you from above the cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony.” (Exodus 25:22)
At the Limmud Miami conference where I was a presenter, I attended the wonderful keynote speech by Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman institute in Israel. Hartman is an Orthodox rabbi and a strong advocate of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, that recognizes the legitimate interests of both sides. He does not see the possibility of such peace in the immediate future, but he is the rare Orthodox rabbi who is willing to say that both Jews and Palestinians have legitimate aspirations.
Hartman’s basic point was that as Jews, we need to come home to the fundamental teachings of our faith. At the heart of Judaism is the idea of human dignity, that every human being is created in the image of God. Every human – Jew and Arab, Christian and Moslem, straight and gay, is worthy in the eyes of God. He repeated the oft-quoted story of Hillel, when a gentile came to him desiring to convert, but only if Hillel could teach him all of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary, go and learn.”
I thought about this fundamental teaching regarding human dignity as I heard about the bomb scare and evacuation at the David Posnack Hebrew Day School, our local Jewish school. This was one of a series of bomb threats to Jewish institutions around the country, leading to evacuations and uneasiness. I was glad to see President Trump in his speech before Congress denounce this new rise in Anti-Semitism.
It is unclear who the perpetrators are. Are those making bomb threats against Jews the right-wing racists and white supremacists, often identified with what is called the alt-right? Such haters have always existed but have come out from under a rock over the past several months. Or are those making bomb threats against Jews the left-wing Israel haters, the ones who make the lives of Jewish students so uncomfortable on college campuses? There is a thin line between a hatred of Israel and a hatred of Jews. Or are those making bomb threats simply teenage pranksters who have not learned right from wrong? I do not know the answer.
I do know that there is a powerful lesson in this week’s portion. Moses receives instructions for the building of a portable tabernacle to carry through the desert. This would be the place where God will dwell. But where exactly in the tabernacle is God’s dwelling? One would think that God dwells in the Holy of Holies, where the tablets of the Ten Commandments are kept. But that is not the answer given in our portion. Above the Holy of Holies are two Cherubim, images of two children face-to-face with wings touching above their heads. (The Talmud actually teaches that the Cherubim were a man and a woman in a sexual embrace.) The Torah teaches that God appears between the faces of the Cherubim.
So where is God? God is present when two humans truly face one another. God is present when one person recognizes the dignity of another person. This is what Hartman was trying to say. God is present when Israelis and Palestinians can begin to see each other as real people, each with their own dreams and aspirations. On the other hand, where is God missing? God is absent whenever people fail to see the other, when fear and hatred blind their eyes. God is absent when people, even as a joke, threaten other people by calling in bomb threats. God is absent whenever a person denigrates another person. God is absent when people make racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or anti-Moslem statements, failing to see the humanity in the other.
Menachim Mendel of Kotzk famously said, “Where is God? Wherever we let Him in.” The first step in letting God in is to see the dignity of every human being we meet. In the ancient tabernacle God was present between the faces of the Cherubim. In our own day, God is present when we truly see the other.

“Make two cherubim of gold – make them of hammered work – at the two ends of the cover.”
(Exodus 25:18)
In this week’s portion we begin the detailed description of the building of the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary carried through the wilderness. This tabernacle was a powerful symbol of God’s presence amongst the people. In the center was an ark which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the holiest spot in the tabernacle. And above the ark were two cherubim, an idea that would develop through the history of Jewish thought.
The words cherubim is an English word invented to sound like the original Hebrew keruvim. There is no real English translation of the Hebrew word. They were like two angels with faces above the ark, confronting one another. Above their backs were wings that curved around and touched. Whenever God appears to Moses through the rest of the Torah, God will appear from between the faces of the cherubim. Already we see a powerful message. God is present when two human beings encounter one another. Later Martin Buber would build an entire theology on that idea. He spoke of I-Thou relationships, moments of total encounter between two human beings. And each I-Thou becomes a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou – God.
Who were these cherubim? The Talmud mentions that they had the faces of children. “R. Ababu said, [the word cherub] means `like a child’ for in Babylonia they call a child ravya.” (Sukkah 5b). Children are known for their innocence and their trust, so two children facing one another became the place where God would meet the Israelites. However, what began as a simple idea developed into something more powerful later in Judaism.
The Talmud has a second description of the cherubim. They are not children but adults, a man and a woman in a sexual embrace. “Rabbi Katina said, When Israel ascended [to Jerusalem] for the Festival, the curtain would be rolled open for them and the cherubs revealed, their bodies intertwined one with the other. They would be addressed, look, the love between you and God is as the love between a man and a woman. (Yoma 54a).” God is symbolized by the man and the community of Israel by the woman. One noticed that they are face-to-face. One of the ways we humans rise above the animal is that in general we have relations face-to-face rather than face-to-back like animals. Each of us encounters the other, just as God encounters Israel.
These ideas are carried even further in Jewish mystical literature. The encounter is no longer simply between God and the people Israel. Rather the encounter actually takes place within God’s very being. There are masculine aspects of God, often described by the term t’feret (beauty of harmony) in the center of the ten sefirot or kabbalistic manifestations of God. There are feminine aspects of God, usually known as shekhinah, God’s indwelling in this world. According to the mystics, t’feret and shekhinah, the masculine and feminine have become separated. In a sense God is broken. They cry out for one another. The job of the mystic is to put God together again.
Allow me to teach a word vital to understand these ideas – theurgy. Theurgy is a human action which can affect the divine sphere. What we do in this material world can have a direct effect on the spiritual world. And when a man and a woman meet each other with the proper intention in this world, it can have ramifications in the spiritual world. In fact, mystics often say a prayer before many actions including marital relations, “May this act bring together the Holy One and His Shekhinah.”
We see how spiritual ideas develop. In the Torah there are two cherubim, angels encountering one another. God meets Moses from between their faces. In the Talmud the cherubim become a man and a woman in a sexual embrace. They come together face-to-face. For the mystics this coming together is a kind of theurgy, being effective in the spiritual realm. When done with the right intention, such acts help bring the masculine and the feminine aspects of God together. The cherubim have become a symbol of uniting that which has become separated, fixing that which has become broken. It is a powerful symbol indeed.

“Make two cherubim of gold – make them of hammered work – at the two ends of the cover.”
(Exodus 25:18)
Let me share a truth that is hard to admit – every day I pray facing statues of Buddha. Let me explain. Our synagogue has a beautiful chapel for our daily prayers, with two big picture windows facing the east. They set up the rabbi’s podium in front of one of those windows. And whenever I turn to face east for the amida, I can see out the window at the parking lot of the building next door. It is a Buddhist Temple, marked by several small statues of Buddha.
So inevitably I must face the Buddha, particularly when the parking lot is empty. On Sundays there are usually people there. In fact, when the weather is nice, I see a group doing what appears to be Tai Chi in the parking lot. On other days the lot is empty. The Buddhists have been wonderful neighbors, allowing us to use their parking lot on the High Holidays and bringing us flowers on Rosh Hashana. And we have tried to reciprocate; I have participated in their Buddha’s birthday celebration. Most of them are Asian, but I am sure there are a large number of Jews there. I constantly meet people born Jewish who have found a spiritual home in Buddhism.
Are those little statues really meant to represent God? Buddhism is a non- theistic religion, without a belief in a personal god. (They also do not believe in a personal soul.) The statues are simply meant to represent the founder of their faith, a man whose name means “Enlightened One.” One can ask what it is about the Buddha’s teaching that is so attractive to Jews, particularly Jews who fail to find spiritual meaning in their own ancestral faith.
Some people say that Judaism does not allow statues. The second of the Ten Commandments teaches that we should not make a graven image of God. Every child knows the story of how our father Abraham smashed the idols. His father owned an idol shop and one day Abraham destroyed them all but the largest, putting a stick in its hand. His father came home and screamed, “What happened!” Abraham responded, “The got into a fight and the big one smashed the others.” “But how can they fight? They are made of stone and wood.” Abraham said, “So why do you sell them as gods?”
Judaism does not allow graven images, and yet statues were part of the ancient tabernacle carried through the desert. The statues of two faces, often pictured as the faces of children, were created facing one another, with their wings touching behind their backs. The Talmud describes them as the faces of a man and a woman in a sexual embrace. (Talmud Yoma 54a) God would speak from between the faces of the Cherubim. As I have often taught, these symbolize the idea that God can be found where people meet one another face-to-face. The Cherubim teach us that in face-to-face meetings with one another we can find God and transform the world.
So what do the statues of Buddha symbolize? To many they stand for compassion, one of the great teachings of the Buddha. Certainly that is something that Jews can relate to. I think about the Jews, myself included, who are drawn to the teachings of the Dalai Lama. In fact, Rodger Kamenetz published a book in 1994 called The Jew in the Lotus, about a historic meeting between the Dalai Lama and a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders. As a Tibetan Buddhist in exile, the Dalai Lama wanted to learn from Jews how they kept their religion alive in exile.
However, in spite of the attraction of Buddhism for Jews, there is a vital difference. Buddhism is based on the notion that life is suffering (Dukkha) and suffering is caused by attachment. Therefore the Buddhist way emphasizes detachment, letting go of the desires of this world. Judaism also understands that suffering is part of living. But Judaism also teaches that one must embrace this world rather than detach from it. Where there is suffering in this world, Judaism teaches that this world needs repairing (Tikkun).
The difference between two beautiful religions – Buddhism and Judaism – can be summarized in a simple question. Do we try to detach from this world, or do we try to transform this world? The statues next door symbolize detachment. The cherubim in the ancient ark symbolized transformation.
“There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:22)
Yesterday, while giving a lecture about God and creation, I ended with one of my favorite stories. A young student comes to his rebbe and asks, “How far are we with God?” The rebbe answers, “As far as east is from west.” The student replies, “That far? At the equator that is 25,000 miles.” “That far,” says the rebbe. A second student comes to the rebbe and asks, “How far are we from God?” The rebbe answers, “As far as east is from west.” “That close? I can be facing east, turn around and face west.” “That close,” says the rebbe.
Are we far from God or are we close to God? When the first Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into space in 1961, he was reported as saying, “I don’t see God.” The Christian theologian C.S. Lewis famously responded that this was like Hamlet going into the castle in Denmark looking for Shakespeare. (It is unclear whether Gagarin actually said this, or whether it was Russian atheistic propaganda.)
God does not occupy physical space. In fact the Hasidic Kotzker Rebbe, when asked where God is, replied “God is wherever we let Him in.” Perhaps as we read this portion it would be worthwhile to begin a search for God. The portion speaks about the building of a tabernacle board by board and curtain by curtain. It goes into great detail and through the years architects and artists have tried to recreate it. Rabbinic tradition sees the building of this portable tent as parallel to the building of the universe. So a worthwhile question is, where is God in the tabernacle?
The first point that jumps out at the reader is that God says, “Let them make me a tabernacle and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) Note that it does not say, “Let them make me a tabernacle and I will dwell in it.” God does not dwell within the tabernacle. God does not occupy space. Later, after building the great Temple in Jerusalem for God, King Solomon proclaims, “But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, how much less this house that I have built.” (1 Kings 8:27) God is not in the tabernacle nor in the Temple. Rather, God dwells among the people building the tabernacle. When human beings get together to do God’s work, that is where God dwells.
There is another hint as to where God dwells in the building of the portable tabernacle. Where will God appear to talk to Moses? At the center of the tabernacle is an ark carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is the Holy of Holies, the holiest place in the tabernacle. But God does not appear there. Above the Holy of Holies is a covering. And above the covering are to Cherubim, statues of children or angels with their wings touching above their heads. (The Talmud actually teaches that the Cherubim were not children or angels, but a man and a woman in a sexual embrace. See Yoma 54a.)
According to the Torah, God would speak to Moses between the faces of the two Cherubim. God is present when two human beings face each other and speak to one another. God is found in relationships. If we want to see the face of God, we first need to see the face of another human being. The musical Les Miserables ends with an actual quote from Victor Hugo, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” God is within the relationships.
So where was God in the portable tabernacle? And where is God in the universe? God does not occupy physical space. God is as close or as far as east is to west. God is wherever we let God in. God is present when human beings work together to do God’s work. And God is present when two human beings see each other face-to-face.

“There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:22)
This week we begin the description of a portable tabernacle to carry through the wilderness. This portion seems of greater interest to architects and artists than the rest of us. But I have always found profound insights in this portion. Perhaps the deepest insight is – where is God in this portable tabernacle?
The verse quoted above gives a hint. God is not in “the holy of holies.” Rather God appears above “the holy of holies,” between the faces of the cherubim. God is present in places of dialogue, where human beings find each other face to face. And this is particularly important in dialogue between those who may disagree with one another. The Talmud tells the tale of how Rabbi Yohanan mourned the death of his brother-in-law Resh Lakish. (Baba Metzia 84a) They had gotten into a vicious fight before Resh Lakish died. Now Rabbi Yohanan missed their passionate arguments. He tells his students, you always agree with me. Resh Lakish would teach twenty four difficulties with everything I say. To Rabbi Yohanan, God was in these disagreements.
This idea came true to me thinking about two Orthodox rabbis who were my teachers long ago. Last week I heard Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel and one of the most articulate teachers of Judaism in the world. I used to attend his lectures when I was in rabbinical school in New York City. Rabbi Riskin spoke to a large group of rabbis and Christian clergy. He shared a memory of his own teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He admitted that Soloveitchik would not have permitted such dialogue with Christian clergy.
Soloveitchik had written an article whether Jews could participate in interfaith dialogue. That was at a time when most Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, believed in supersessionism, the principle that Judaism had been replaced by Christianity and no longer had any legitimacy. Soloveitchik taught that you cannot have a dialogue with people who do not recognize your legitimacy. But here is where Riskin said something very surprising for an Orthodox rabbi. He said that Christianity has changed. Both the Catholic Church and most Protestant groups recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish people. And if Christianity has changed, Judaism must also change. Riskin spoke passionately about both the permissibility and the necessity of dialogue between Jews and Christians. God is in the dialogue.
I thought of another Orthodox rabbi this week. Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, passed away at the age of 81. Formerly a native of Montreal who received his PhD in philosophy from McGill University, Hartman taught at Hebrew University. In fact, I took a course with him long ago on Maimonides and Jewish philosophy. But Hartman’s greatest achievement was the Shalom Hartman Institute. Here, rabbis of all persuasions – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal – came together to study every summer. It became a leading voice for pluralism in Jewish life. And it tackled some of the most fundamental questions facing Judaism and Israel.
One of my regrets is that I personally never studied at the Hartman Institute. Colleagues of me who did learn there often found it the highlight of their year. However I did continue to learn from Rabbi Hartman, reading his books and writings. He deeply believed in pluralism, breaking with the insular world of most Orthodox rabbis. Rabbis, and for that matter other clergy, must learn together and talk with one another. Again God is present in the dialogue.
Here are two Orthodox rabbis, David Hartman z”l and yibadel lechaim (separated for life), Shlomo Riskin, who taught of the importance of dialogue with those who disagree with us. How many of us tend to talk only with those who share our religious or political views. Rabbi Yohanan taught us long ago that we only grow in dialogue with others. Between the faces of two people with two very different views, we can find God.


“You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it.” (Exodus 26:31)
The Oscar race is on. The best movie I have seen this past year is The King’s Speech. One scene it particular still resonates with me for its power. King George VI played by Colin Firth prepares to give a stirring radio speech to his countrymen about the forthcoming war with Nazi Germany. He walks past hundreds of employees to the broadcast room as the stirring music of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony plays. His nervousness shows. Finally he enters a room curtained off, with only his speech teacher (Geoffrey Rush) to help him overcome his stuttering. The curtained room gives him the privacy and confidence to assert his authority at this key moment.
I was thinking about another movie featuring curtains made some seventy years ago. This also featured a man hiding behind a curtain seeking to assert his authority. When the curtain comes down, we learn that he is not the wonderful wizard of Oz, but a mere mortal who became lost in a balloon flight. Without the curtains, what seemed extraordinary became ordinary.
This week we read in great detail of the plans to build a portable sanctuary, called the mishkan, which the Israelites would carry through the desert. Included in the plans were the details of making curtains to separate the outer area from the inner area, and the inner area from the holiest place right in the center. Curtains also enclosed the entire tabernacle, separating it from the outside world. It is through separation that the Israelites were able to build a sense of awe and holiness.
Curtains do create that sense of privacy and separation, what we can call a sense of holiness. I often fly but my budget usually confines me to the economy class at the back of the plane. There is always that moment when the flight takes off and the flight attendant pulls a curtain separating first class. Are the airlines trying to prevent those in the back from seeing the good meals first class passengers are served while we must buy peanuts and crackers? Or are the airlines saying to those in the back, if you paid more or flew more often, you too can have this sense of privilege? I once flew to Geneva on Swiss Air. I begged for leg room and they found me a seat in the front row of economy. I was able to stretch out my legs under the curtain; I flew in the cheap seats but my legs flew business class.
On a more serious note, there is desperate need for separation and discretion in contemporary life. We live in a world where there are no curtains. People vie for the chance to appear on reality television, revealing everything to the entire world. I admit that I do not understand why a group of total strangers would agree to live together in a house with cameras watching everything they do 24 -7. I also do not understand why anyone would search for the “love of their life” on a television show competing with twenty other beautiful people. Some things require privacy and discretion, virtues we have lost in our modern culture.
At a Jewish wedding, there is a requirement known as yichud. Immediately after the ceremony, the bride and groom need a few moments of absolute privacy with one another. There was a time when they literally consummated the marriage. Today it symbolizes their union. Sometimes this precious moment becomes a source of arguments. I have had to ask photographers to exit the room and leave the bride and groom alone. I have told the mother of the bride or the maid of honor that they can wait a few moments to bustle the dress. And receiving lines for the bride and groom are not part of the Jewish wedding customs.
We need to rediscover places and times of intimacy and privacy. We need to draw curtains around our lives, just as curtains were drawn in the ancient tabernacle. It is part of the most important message I have tried to put across to my students over the years – how can we rediscover the sense of holiness which has been lost in our contemporary culture?


“There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:22)
One of my favorite themes in Jewish tradition grows out of this portion. God commands the Israelites to build a tabernacle, with a holy ark to keep the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Above the ark were two cherubim, winged humans figures facing each other. Usually they are pictured as two children or two angels. And God spoke to the people Israel from between the faces of the cherubim.
I have often written that the best way to feel God’s presence is when two people encounter one another face-to-face. (That is what drives me crazy about seeing people, particularly young people, together at a table and texting others on their cell phones.) The Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber built his entire philosophy on the importance of encounters between two human beings who are totally present with one another. He called such an encounter an “I – Thou” relationship. And he wrote, “Each Thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.” When two people are face-to-face in a moment of total encounter, one can sense the presence of God.
This idea can be extended into the realm of sexual encounters. According to the Talmud, the cherubim were not simply statues of winged children. “Rav Katina said, When the Israelites would ascend to the Holy Temple on festivals, the Priests would roll up the curtain for them and display the cherubim, a man and a woman intertwined. The Priests would then tell them, behold beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omnipresent are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female.” (Yoma 54a) The Talmud describes the encounter as male encountering female face-to-face in a sexual embrace.
Seeing the cherubim in an erotic light puts a whole new understanding on the presence of God. God is not simply present when two people encounter one another across a table, but when a husband and a wife encounter one another in the bedroom. (My second book was called Does God Belong in the Bedroom? The answer is yes.) I often speak of the difference between animals and human beings. One further difference is that most animals have sex face to back. Humans, at least most of the time, have sex face-to-face.
The Kabbalists really took off on this idea. They saw the face-to-face encounter of a man with a woman as a reenaction of the cosmic encounter between God and the people Israel. Kabbalistic scholar Moshe Idel has written, “… face-to-face intercourse is praised by the Zohar thereafter becomes, especially in Lurianic Kabbalah, a cosmogonic principle which defines the mode of existence that insures permanence.” (Kabbalah and Eros, page 58) (Definition – cosmogonic means a story about the creation of the universe. Face-to-face erotic love is built into the very structure of the universe.)
What does all this have to do with life today? We live in an age of anonymous, recreational sex. Two people hop into bed together, handle their physical needs, and then the next morning ask one another, “What is your name?” We live in an age of separation and estrangement, when people do not even know who their neighbors are. We live in an age of otherness, when we fail to recognize the humanity of our fellow human beings. And as mentioned earlier, we live in an age when we can sit at the family dinner table, each person with their own cell phone, ipod, or blackberry. Face-to-face encounters are sadly lacking in our society.
The Torah teaches that God and Moses met face-to-face. So we ought to learn to encounter each other face-to-face; there we will find the presence of God.



“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

God understands human nature. Humans need a building, a place to symbolize God’s presence in the midst of the community. That is why, while Moses was receiving the instructions on building the building, the people went ahead and built a Golden Calf. They needed something.
This portion begins the detailed description of a portable building called a mishkan (“tabernacle”) to be carried through the desert. It contained most of the symbols we associate with a sanctuary – a holy place at the center which contained the Ten Commandments (today we have the ark containing the Torah scrolls), an Eternal Light, and a seven branched menorah. The portable sanctuary was carried through the desert and became the place where God and the people would meet.
Eventually this portable sanctuary became the model for the great Temple in Jerusalem. Again it was a building that met a deep human need, a symbol of God’s presence within the community. That Temple was built twice and destroyed twice. A couple of weeks ago I visited the one part of the Temple still standing, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Saying a prayer at the wall is an absolute necessity for any trip to the holy city.
Even before the Temple was destroyed, synagogues were being built in every Jewish community throughout the world. They became places for Jews to gather, to study, and to pray. These synagogues were modeled on the great Temple in Jerusalem, with the same holy symbols. Some more liberal synagogues actually called their synagogues “temples.” Traditionalists like me prefer to reserve the world “temple” for the great Temple of Jerusalem. (I have never understood why we refer to our synagogue here as Temple Beth Torah; the word “temple” usually refers to a Reform synagogue. But that is another discussion for another time.)
In truth, Jews do not need a building to get together and pray. I have prayed with a minyan (ten adult Jews required for public prayer) at the beach and on a mountain, in private homes and hotels, on airplanes and even at the ballpark next to the kosher hot dog stand. We Jews have a portable religion that we can carry anywhere. But wherever we Jews have settled, it is in our nature to build a building. A building, whether called a shule, a synagogue, or a temple, is a statement of our presence. We have arrived and we are part of this community.
I have always been intrigued by the fact that Jews love to visit synagogues in other parts of the world when they are traveling. People who rarely come to services when they are at home will back a big effort to find the local synagogue in Rome or China or Buenos Aires, and even in smaller towns in the United States. I have often gone searching for the local synagogue in little communities across the US including Alaska and Hawaii. I am proud to see a Jewish presence.
While in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I looked in on the Great Synagogue on King George Street. It is an Orthodox synagogue and I have occasionally gone there for Shabbat services over the years. Built in 1982, part of the motivation behind its design was that Jews in Jerusalem should have a majestic building comparable to the great cathedrals of Europe. A little shtiebl (tiny house of worship) is not enough for the holy city. Once again, God does not need a building. We human beings need a building as a way of symbolizing our presence and God’s presence in the community.
Our own congregation is about to embark on a new building project. The city of Tamarac has asked us to move, given us land and some money to start this project. The design for our new building is gorgeous. But what is most important is a sense that a synagogue to serve the Jews of western Broward County is a powerful symbol. We Jews have arrived and we are part of this community. And as the Torah portion teaches, God will dwell among us as we build this building.


“They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and half cubit long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold – overlay it inside and out – and make upon it a gold molding round about.” (Exodus 25:10-11)

My daughter has a wonderful job in an Orlando resort, working in the recreation department, doing programming for children or helping out at the swimming pool. It is a fancy place with beautiful art and expensive carpeting. One day while staying at the resort, I had to go with my daughter back into the employees-only area to handle some business with the human resources office. This area was far shabbier – older carpeting and bare walls. I walked only a few feet into this area when a security guard stopped me. “She is an employee; she can be back here. But you are not allowed in this area.” So I had to leave and she went on alone.
I understand the need to have an “employee-only” area where paying guests such as me are not welcome. But what was particularly noticeable was the difference in ambiance between the outside where hotel guests came and the inside where only employees came. And this is a hotel that has been wonderful to its employees. But there is a difference between the outside and the inside. This should not surprise me. I have been on the “inside” of hotels, catering halls, restaurants, even a cruise ship. The fancy decorations are saved for the paying guests. Employees and backstage workers have minimal amenities.
This is the way it is in the world of buildings that serve the public. There is the fancy outside the public sees, and there is the employee-area which is utilitarian at best. However, there is one public building that took a very different approach. When Moses gave instructions on building the ancient tabernacle that the Israelites carried through the desert, he insisted that the inside had to match the outside. Both the outside and the inside of the ark had to be overlaid with pure gold. The part of the building nobody saw had to be as beautiful as the part everybody saw. The Rabbis of the Midrash had a phrase for this – tocho kevaro “the inside has to match the outside.”
Rabbinic literature built on this fundamental idea that the inside has to match the outside. “A learned person should be the same on the inside as on the outside.” (Tanhuma Vayakhel 7). “Any student whose inside does not match his outside should not enter the house of study.” (Berachot 28a) A person must not simply develop a certain exterior to show to the world; rather that person must develop those same qualities on the interior where nobody sees. One of the challenges of life is to develop an interior to match our exterior.
Such a match between our inside and our outside is not always easy. Dick Van Dyke sang in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, “Put on a happy face.” Often we must pretend to be what we are really not deep inside. There is a classic story many preachers like to tell. A man goes to a psychologist deeply depressed. “I hate my life. I am so unhappy and I do not know what to do.” The psychologist replies, “You need to cheer up. The circus is in town, and they have a clown named Grumaldi who is very funny. Why don’t you go see Grumaldi? I am sure he will raise your spirits.” The man answers the psychologist, “You do not understand. I am Grumaldi.”
The difficult question is whether we can develop our inner self to match our outer self. If we want people to see us as cheerful and joyous, can we be deep in our inner selves cheerful and joyous. If we want the world to see us as kind and charitable, can we be deep in our inner selves kind and charitable. If we want the world to see us as humble and self-effacing, can we be deep in our inner selves humble and self-effacing. And if we want the world to see us as practitioners of our faith, can we truly feel that religious faith deep in our own souls.
Hotels can afford to be fancy on the outside and simple on the inside. Human beings, if they are to be successful in life, should strive to be the same on the inside as on the outside. That is the lesson of the ancient tabernacle.



“Let them make me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

Western Civilization has its roots in both Athens and Jerusalem. How we see the world is based on both how the ancient Greek philosophers and the ancient Hebrew prophets saw the world. Western thought combines two very different world outlooks to provide a consistent vision of God and humanity.
To the Greeks, God was an impersonal force. Plato saw God as the Good, the form behind all the forms. Aristotle saw God as the unmoved mover, the agent behind all causation. Neither saw a God one could pray to, argue with, or encounter. To the Greeks God was not a person but an impersonal force. The Greek view appealed to the head but not to the heart.
Not so the Hebrews. In the Bible God is a person. God has a will and encounters people in relationships. Abraham argues with God over Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses sees God on a mountain and comes down a changed man; he must wear a mask to protect people from the strange light coming from his face. The great literary prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others, meet God as a person and speak passionate words in God’s name. This was a God who touched our hearts.
Later Jewish, Christian, and Moslem thinkers combined the Greek impersonal God and the Biblical personal God. God is the unmoved mover. But God can be encountered in prayer. Combining two very different conceptions of God did not always work well. But out of this combination grew our Western conception of God, one that appeals to both the head and the heart.
If God is a person and not just a force, where can we meet this person? How can we encounter this person? This is the key question in this week’s portion. The Torah this week, and for the next several weeks, describes the building of a place where the Hebrews can meet God. It is called a mishkan (literally “a place of dwelling” from the Hebrew word meaning “to dwell.” The mystical feminine name of God Shekinah comes from the same root.) In English we unusually translate this place a “tabernacle.” The Israelites must build a tabernacle as a place to meet God.
Later the tabernacle will be replaced by a Temple, the great Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon and later rebuilt in the days of Ezra. Twice the Temple was built and destroyed; Orthodox Jews pray for the rebuilding of a third Temple. Non-Orthodox Jews including the Conservative Movement no longer pray for the rebuilding of the Temple. We must find an alternative place to meet God.
Some would say that our synagogues ought to be a place to encounter God. For many Jews, synagogues are a mikdash m’at, a small Temple, a place to encounter God. Often people will come into our sanctuary just to sit, even when no formal services are taking place. They want to encounter the person of God. All who care about synagogue life must ask the question: have we built a place to encounter God?
The Rabbis of the Talmud felt that we Jews encounter God through the study of Torah. Wherever Jews discuss words of Torah, there the Shekinah dwells. If we cannot meet God on a mountain as Moses did, we can encounter God through the study of sacred texts. That is why Torah study has become the key to Jewish spirituality.
I believe there are many places where we can encounter God. But there is one particular place, also hinted at in this portion. In the tabernacle, God communicates between the faces of the Cherubim, human-like figures which covered the holy ark. God is between the faces. So it is that whenever we encounter a human being face-to-face, being fully present, there we encounter the face of God. As Jean Valjean sang at the end of the musical Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”



“And you shall hang up the veil from the clasps, that you may bring in there inside the veil the ark of the Testimony; and the veil shall separate for you between the holy place and the most holy.” (Exodus 26:33)

Like many of you, I enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics over the past several weeks. There were many highlights. But let me focus on one moment, the performance of the talented ice skater Sasha Cohen.
Sasha skated to perfection in the short program. You could see it not only in the way she skated but in her eyes. She was totally focused, oblivious to any distractions, hitting all her jumps and outshining every other skater. She finished the evening in the lead. It was an inspiration.
Not so two nights later when she skated her long program. She had fallen during warm up and seemed distracted as the program began. Her eyes looked scared. She fell twice. Then, through shear guts and persistence, she finished by skating beautifully. The gold medal was out of reach, but she won the silver.
What impressed me was a television interview afterwards. The interviewer asked her what happened in the long program. She had admitted that she was not fully focused, not in the zone. So they asked how she was able to continue and win the silver. She replied that it was due to her training. Excellent training raised her to the level of the silver. But it takes something beyond training, almost a moment of grace, to reach that gold medal. One needs to be in the zone.
I wrote something similar about a Miami Hurricane football game a few years ago. I watched the football game on television between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the University of Florida Gators. I watched something happen to the mind of the Hurricane quarterback Brock Berlin. The first half of the game he was unfocused, going through the motions without concentration. At one point he threw the football right into the arms of an opposing player. Early in the third quarter the Canes were down by 23 points and it looked as if they were going to bring in the second string quarterback. Then something mysterious happened. Berlin became focused. He started completing pass after pass. After three unanswered touchdowns, he had tied the game. In the end, the Canes won 38 to 33 in a huge come from behind victory.
Every sports coach in the world wishes they could bottle this change in focus of an athlete. Reporters asked Berlin how he had turned it around. “I asked God for peace: `Lord, just give me peace right now and help me lead my teammates and be able to do something here,'” Berlin said. “He did give me peace and I was able to stay comfortable the whole game.”
We have all seen athletes who suddenly are in the zone, able to mentally reach that higher level. There is no guarantee that it will happen; sometimes we train hard but we are mentally not quite there. But then there are times when we reach a higher level, almost as if God takes control of our mind. What is true for athletics is true for many other areas of human endeavor. There are times that I go through the motions of being a rabbi – giving a sermon, counseling an individual, performing a life cycle event. Thanks to training and experience, I am able to do an adequate job, maybe even win a silver medal. But I know that I am not at my best. But other times I am in the zone. It is as if God’s grace is bringing me to a different level. I feel it; I will win a gold medal in rabbi-ing.
I have been looking at the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, a great thinker and one of the founders of twentieth century existentialism. (Sadly, Heidegger never renounced his early flirtation with fascism. Hopefully, we can separate the man’s philosophy from his politics.) His main idea was the notion of dasein, which can be translated as “being there.” Dasein, being fully present, is the goal of authentic human existence. Heidegger admits that no one can be fully there, fully present at all times. The best we can do is train ourselves for such moments of absolute presence.
From ice skating to existential philosophy, there is an important idea lurking here. Perhaps it is symbolized by our portion. There is a holy place. Then there is the holiest place, the Holy of Holies, separated by a curtain. The Holy of Holies is not accessible to everybody at all times (later it would only be open to the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur.) We can train ourselves to enter the holy place. Then, sometimes God calls us into the Holy of Holies. All we can do is train and be ready. Hopefully we can all have those gold medal moments, when we are truly in the zone.



“There I will meet with you and I will commune with you, from above the ark cover, from between the two Cherubim which are upon the ark of testimony.”
(Exodus 25:22)

Allow me to share a memory. When I was a college student studying in Israel, I went on a brief vacation to Athens, Greece. I recall one evening wandering the city near the Parthenon, meeting another American several years older than me, and sitting talking for several hours. I do not remember his name, nor have I ever seen him again. I do not believe he was Jewish. But that brief encounter and evening of conversation was influential in pushing me towards a decision I had been considering, to become a rabbi. A chance encounter with a total stranger pushed by life in the direction it was meant to go.
This idea is already found in the Bible. Joseph became lost in his attempt to find his brothers. “A certain man found him and behold, he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, what do you seek. And he said, I seek my brothers.” (Genesis 37:15-16) The man pointed Joseph towards his brothers, who threw him into a pit, leading to a series of events which would result in the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. A chance encounter with a stranger changed the course of history.
Many New Age thinkers would reply that this is not surprising. There are no coincidences, whatever happens is what was meant to happen. We meet whom we need to meet at each particular moment in life. I am not sure that I totally share the New Age outlook, but I believe there is a touch of truth to the idea of spiritual encounters.
There are certain souls to whom we are connected in a profound way. Perhaps it is the soul of our spouse or lover, the soul of our parents or children, or some other family member. Perhaps it is the soul of a close friend and confidant. Or perhaps it is the soul of a person we meet by a chance encounter, who helps us correct the trajectory of our lives. God sends such people to us to help our soul fulfill its particular mission on earth. Perhaps there are people we meet because, on some spiritual level, we are meant to meet them. We are already connected to them on a spiritual level.
There is a new book on the bestseller list by Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays with Maury. The book is entitled The Five People You Meet in Heaven. It tells the story of an elderly man killed in a tragic accident, who then meets a series of people in the next world. Each person explains his or her role in the life of this man. In heaven he learns the purpose of his life and the meaning of his encounters with a series of individuals. He discovers a spiritual connection with other people that goes beyond this physical life.
According to the Torah, humans are created from the dust of the earth, and then animated by the breath of God. Each of us has a physical reality, a body which is born, lives for a certain period, and eventually dies. But each of us also has a spiritual reality, a part of us which goes beyond the physical. It is the part of us that exists after our physical selves are gone. As the Bible teaches, the dust returns to the earth from where it came but the spirit returns to God.
People also encounter other people on this spiritual level. We have soul mates, people who are connected to us in a way that goes beyond the physical. We encounter certain people in our lives, sometimes for a moment and sometimes for a lifetime, who are connected to us in a deep and profound way. They have the ability change our lives.
This idea is shown symbolically in this week’s portion. In the ancient tabernacle two Cherubim were built, golden statues of two humans facing one another. Some saw the Cherubim as two children, while others saw them as a man and a woman. God would speak from between the faces of the two Cherubim. The symbolism is clear; there are moments when two humans meet face to face. In the presence of such a human encounter, God dwells. The spiritual dimension is most present when we connect to other humans on a spiritual level. Our lives are filled with deep spiritual connections, if only we can open our eyes and see them.



“The curtain shall serve you as a partition between the Holy and the Holy of Holies.”
(Exodus 26:33)

It has been a sad week for our nation. Seven brave astronauts perished when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas while coming in for a landing. NASA is already studying how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future. Spiritual seekers ask the deeper question – Why? Where was God and why did God allow this to happen?
For Jews who love Israel, the tragedy took on a particular poignancy. One of the seven was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. He saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people, requesting kosher food in space and carrying with him a painting by a boy who perished in the holocaust. That boy is gone from this earth. Now the painting and the astronaut who carried it into space are also gone from this earth. Where are they?
At our Shabbat services we will quote the words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a pilot who perished in World War II. Before his death at the age of nineteen, Magee wrote a poem entitled High Flight. He began his poem with the line that President Reagan used after the Challenger disaster
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth.”
He ended with the words:
“And while with silent lifting mind, I’ve trod,
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”
When we go into space do we touch the face of God? Decades ago the cosmonauts from the former Soviet Union bolstered their nation’s atheist policy by proclaiming, “We went into space and looked for God, but He wasn’t there.” Many today would see this tragedy as proof that there is no God, and that when we leave this earthly existence we are no more.
What the world needs to hear is that God is beyond space! At the memorial service in Houston, Texas for the astronauts, the rabbi who spoke quoted the traditional Jewish words of comfort, “HaMakom (May God) grant you comfort with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The word for God HaMakom literally means “The Place.” There is no place that can hold God; God is beyond the physical limitations of space. To put it differently, God is not within space, but space is within God.
In this week’s Torah reading we read of the building of a portable tent that the Israelites would carry through the wilderness. The tent was divided up into spaces with various degrees of holiness. There was the holy area in the center. And then divided by a curtain, was the holiest area, known as the Holy of Holies. About fifteen feet cubed, this is where the two tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept. But did God dwell in this confined space?
The Torah does not say “Build me a tabernacle and I will dwell in it.” Rather it says, “Build me a tabernacle and I will dwell among you.” God does not occupy a particular space. Rather, when we do God’s work, God dwells among us. Whether it is building a beautiful tent to carry through the desert, or sending human beings hurling beyond the earth to explore the frontiers of space, when we do God’s work God dwells among us. And God dwelt among the seven astronauts on that day.
So where are these seven brave men and women now? They no longer exist in this world of space. They have returned to God Who made them, to a spiritual dimension beyond space, a place of light and unity and joy. When they began their journey we can say that God was with them. Now that they have come home, we can say that they are with God. May they rest in peace and may their memories be for a blessing.



“Speak to the children of Israel that they take for me an offering, of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take an offering.” (Exodus 25:2)

This message, a continuation of last week (Mishpatim 5762), is taken from my new book The Ten Journeys of Life.
The Scarcity Mind-set
“What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours,- this is a mediocre person. Some say this is the way of Sodom.”The Torah describes the destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. What was so evil about these two cities? The rabbis teach that their evil ways were based on their attitude toward money.
The people of Sodom hoarded their money. When Abraham’s nephew Lot moved into town, they welcomed him. He was a wealthy man, and they saw an economic advantage in having him as a neighbor. However, poor people, beggars and visitors without money to spend were not welcome in Sodom.
According to the rabbinic midrash, when a certain poor man came into town a young woman was kind to him and shared her money. When the people heard this, they attacked and tortured her (Sanhedrin 109b). Helping the poor, they believed, would set a bad precedent for the community; beggars and poor people would move into town. The Torah teaches that “God heard her cry (Genesis 18:21), the cry of a generous young woman attacked by her wicked neighbors.
The people of Sodom had a scarcity complex. They believed there was only so much wealth to go around and that if people shared money each would have less. This scarcity attitude toward money leads to people hoarding and being selfish. That was the mistake of Sodom, and the mistake of too many selfish individuals today. That is why the Torah tries to inculcate in us humans a prosperity mind-set that sees wealth as ever-expanding and the sharing of wealth as leading to abundance.
The Prosperity Mind-set
The Sodom and Gemorrah story teaches us to have a different attitude about money – to believe that wealth is to be shared and passed on: “What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours, this is the way of the righteous.” Or, as a Buddhist leader taught, “Money is round so that it will keep rolling.” Many great teachers have taught that when we share our wealth, our charity comes back to bless us and we receive more in return.
Numerous times during my career, someone successful in business has spoken to me about their success. “Rabbi, a few years ago I went through a very hard time. I do not know how we survived financially. However, we decided that we would continue to make our donations and support worthy causes. Whatever little money came in, we always gave something back to the community. I am convinced that our giving led directly to our success today.”
Rather than a scarcity paradigm (wealth is limited and the more I give away, the less I have), we ought to live by the prosperity paradigm: Wealth is unlimited. If one person has more, it does not mean that someone else has less. Because Bill Gates is a multibillionaire does not mean that the rest of us are poorer. (If anything, his wealth has created more wealth.).
The biblical lesson is that we live in a world of unlimited wealth, and that wealth is given to us with the condition that we constantly give some away. The biblical ideal prompts us to move from a scarcity paradigm to a prosperity paradigm, to recognize that God created a world filled with almost unlimited opportunities to successfully provide for ourselves and our families.


“Tell the people Israel to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2)

I spent last weekend in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I served as their scholar-in-residence. The most exciting activity in the city that weekend (besides my visit) was preparation for Mardi Gras. I always thought Mardi Gras was more a custom of Catholic New Orleans, not their Southern Baptist neighbors in the northern part of the state. But even in Shreveport, it was an excuse to party.
Mardi Gras means fat Tuesday. It is part of the Catholic calendar, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The celebrations, whether in New Orleans or at Carnival in Rio is transformed into the serious introspection of the Lenten period.
Someone asked one of my hosts why she was not in costume for Mardi Gras. She tried to explain that she was Jewish, and Mardi Gras is really not a Jewish tradition. I reminded her that our Jewish version of Carnival really comes one week later. This coming week we celebrate the festival of Purim, a wild celebration of the events described in the Biblical book of Esther. We celebrate with parties, costumes, food, and for many Jews, too much to drink. (The Talmud says one should imbibe enough so that we are unable to differentiate between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” I know many Jews who are lax about other observances but rigorously keep this one.)
Like our Catholic neighbors who follow Mardi Gras with Lent, our festival of Purim is immediately followed by the serious preparations for Pesach. We clean our homes of hametz (leavening) and prepare ourselves for the dietary disciplines of the Passover holiday. The party is over; the serious business of self-discipline now begins.
There is a lesson in all of this. As human beings we need to celebrate. We need our Mardi Gras and our Purim, our opportunities to party and celebrate. We need amusement parks in our lives. We need fun and diversion. However, a lifetime of amusement parks is not a successful nor a happy life. Fun and diversion must be balanced with hard work and serious self discipline. Catholics need their Lent; Jews need their Passover preparations. We all need to balance the party of life with self-discipline and commitment.
Unfortunately, I meet many people who want the Mardi Gras without the Lent, who want the Purim without the Pesach. They want to have fun and party without the serious self-discipline and commitment that makes for a successful life.
Last week I also visited our college students up and down the state of Florida. Most of them work hard to succeed with their studies. But I also meet many college students who like to party too much, who are irresponsible with their new found independence. I meet students who discover too late that drinking and partying must give way to hard work and serious self discipline. Too many of our students cannot handle the fun and fail or drop out.
California author and radio personality Dennis Prager has commented that we mistake fun for happiness, we search for immediate pleasure rather than the long term achievement that will ultimately bring us happiness. In fact, Prager teaches that fun and happiness are really opposites.
This week’s Torah reading speaks of serious commitments, of giving towards the building of a tabernacle. What is important in life is to balance the partying and celebration with the commitment that comes afterwards.



“The partition shall separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies.” (Exodus 26:33)

I asked a group of teens in my synagogue how they would react if they saw the scroll of the Torah lying uncovered and open. They answered, as I expected, that they would immediately cover it up. I asked why. They said that an uncovered Torah is open and vulnerable. Leaving a Torah open and uncovered somehow marred their sense of the holiness of the Torah.
The teens’ answers told me something profound about Jewish thinking. If we want something to be holy, we cover it up. Leaving it exposed takes the mystery and specialness away. This is the reason that we carefully dress our Torahs, and keep them in the holiest spot in the synagogue – the ark. We open the ark and undress the Torahs only at a special moment in our religious service; opening the ark, undressing and dressing the Torah are considered honors.
In this week’s portion we learn the ideal of achieving holiness by covering up. The entire tabernacle is covered by heavy curtains. God commands Moses to build a special partition to separate the holiest spot from the rest of the tabernacle. “Make a partition of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, together with twisted linen.” (Exodus 26:31) Top quality material is used to set off the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle.
Separating and covering up is part of how we achieve holiness. In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem the Holy of Holies was off limits except for the High Priest, and then only on Yom Kippur. The people were truly in awe of that moment when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. A mistake at that moment could create havoc. Successfully exiting the Holy of Holies was a cause for joy and celebration. This moment is recreated in the liturgy for Yom Kippur afternoon.
It is worth exploring the idea in our contemporary society of covering up in order to achieve a sense of specialness, of holiness. Perhaps a secular way to understand this idea is to consider a stretch limousine with tinted windows. People see the limo and ask, “Who is it? A movie star? A sports hero? A celebrity?” In truth, anybody with a few hundred dollars can hire a limo for an evening, be covered, and feel special. People rent a limo for a wedding, a prom, a special date, a time when they want to feel separated and elevated.
The Bible takes this emotion and places it in a religious context. In the Garden of Eden we humans were animal like. We still had not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, we still did not make moral decisions. We were “naked and not ashamed.” Animals live naked and feel no shame as they go about fulfilling their bodily functions. The moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they felt shame. They immediately covered themselves. Part of rising above the animal kingdom and achieving holiness is to cover ourselves up.
The Torah uses a fascinating term for forbidden sexual relations, “uncovering nakedness.” Noah was the first man to lie with his nakedness uncovered, causing a series of events that led to Noah’s cursing his grandson. On Yom Kippur we read a series of laws regarding forbidden sexual relations, all of them using the phrase “uncovering nakedness.” Later the rabbis would rule that for three transgressions a Jew should die rather than break the law. One of those is gilui arayot, “uncovering nakedness.” One of the criticisms of our secular society is that we have uncovered what once was kept covered. We have lost our sense of modesty and discretion. Private behavior is now discussed in public. We wear clothing which expose our bodies in ways that would have made our ancestors cringe. A sexual revolution has taken the holiness out of our most intimate relations. Too often sex becomes recreational, a source of pleasure rather than holiness. Like the animal kingdom, we are naked and not ashamed.
Perhaps the Torah is saying, to achieve holiness, keep covered what ought to be covered.