Judaism is about what happens both inside and outside the synagogue

March 2, 2012

It was a good morning. I had negotiated child care, work responsibilities and sleep deprivation and made it to yoga class on time. Class began and ended with a meditation, time which I used productively to make a food-shopping list and outline my sermon for the upcoming weekend.

The irony: A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah of one of the many intimate encounters between God and Moses. It begins with God telling Moses to “ascend to the top of the mountain and be there” (Exodus 24:12). The question is asked: Why would God need to say both “ascend the mountain” and “be there”? Wouldn’t just the first clause have been enough? And the answer: It is not enough. Physically walking up the mountain and arriving at the top is only the first step. It’s in cultivating a sense of presence that the hard work begins.

Getting to the yoga class? Check. Down-dog, Warrior I, II, III? Check. Being there? Epic fail.

Cultivating a presence in body and spirit, giving money to a homeless person and looking him or her in the eye, calling a friend who is going through a tough time and concentrating only on that one conversation, showing up at synagogue and opening your heart to prayer—it’s not just about showing up. It’s about “being here” as well.

The Jewish Sabbath is an eternal concept, designed as a respite from all those worries and fears that dog us during the week, designed to cut us off from all things—commerce, technology—that preclude us from being fully present to ourselves and those we love. We can choose to partake in it, or not. Shabbat happens whether we’re at the grocery store, at work, or at home. In that way, it’s kind of like life. We can go through life on total auto-pilot, and, in fact, most of the time we do. Every once in a while, though, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that it’s not just what happened an hour ago or what will happen next week or next year. It’s now. You spent all week ascending the mountain, the Sabbath teaches, and now you're here. Give yourself a break. Be here.

In last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we rejoined our wandering Israelites in the wilderness. At God’s request, they build a mishkan, a tabernacle, a mobile sanctuary. God says, "Let them make me a Mishkan that I may dwell among them.” The Biblical authors chose an interesting word for what we translate as “dwell.” The obvious choice would have been yashav, which means “to settle somewhere.” Instead, purposefully, the Biblical authors chose shachan, to live somewhere temporarily. Yashav is moving into a new house; shachan is pitching a tent.

In ancient Israelite times, there were plenty of peoples building tabernacles for their gods. But the Israelites did it a little bit differently. Instead of building a place for their God, Adonai, to settle down, the Israelites built a tent to serve as God’s hub or base of operations. It’s the difference between the candidate who does all campaign fundraising by “taking” meeting after meeting at The Palm, and the candidate who does some Palm-esque work but accomplishes most of the fundraising by going door-to-door. The Israelite God, Adonai, rests in the tabernacle from time to time, but it’s temporary. God is both in the tabernacle and with the people.

Jews are the heirs to the Israelites’ God. We come to the synagogue to pray and to sing and to study and to meet and to be here—and all that is critical. But Judaism does not happen only in the synagogue. We can access God not just in exquisite spaces such as Sixth & I but also when we do God’s work in the world.

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as they marched for civil rights together in Alabama. Of that experience, Rabbi Heschel wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel was a man who was very comfortable in the synagogue, but he recognized that Judaism cannot be lived in a building. Just the opposite. For God in Israelite times, for Heschel 40 years ago, for us today, Judaism needs to be both about what happens inside the synagogue, as well as what happens outside. The synagogue must serve as our launch pad, compass and refueling station, giving us a foundation and a direction as we do God’s work in the world.

Taking time for a Sabbath helps us cultivate the practice of presence, arguably one of the most sorely needed qualities in our multitasking, Twitter- and soundbite-driven society. It’s not easy — witness the Sabbath-practicing rabbi drawing up shopping lists during yoga class. Being present to God, to those we love, to our own selves—these are touchstones on a lifelong journey to create a life that matters, a life that is bigger than any one of us, a life that is more than the sum of its parts. A life where we can feel the presence of God—of the Shekhinah, the one who dwells among all of us—each and every moment.

Rabbi Shira Stutman is the Director of Community Engagement at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington.

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