Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur Morning 5783 Finding Resilience: Consecrating Our Sanctuary’s Ark

10/06/2022 08:57:33 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D. Min.

A martial arts student seeks out his master, seeking physical and spiritual resilience: "Master, forgive my intrusion, but I require your aid. I haven’t advanced in my training for many months now.”

After silently reflecting, the wise master calmly speaks: "Have you witnessed the blue moon illuminating the darkest depths of the ocean?"  "Yes, master!" said the disciple enthusiastically.

"Have you seen the wind mercilessly slash at the unfaltering tree, only to help it grow stronger?"  "Yes, master!"

"Have you witnessed the chilling water break against an immovable stone, seemingly accomplishing nothing?"  "Yes, master!"

After more silence, the wise teacher opens his eyes and says: “There's your problem... You keep looking at random nonsense instead of concentrating on your training!"   

         We may not be questing for the blue moon’s reflection in the ocean, but like the student, we are yearning for greater resilience…that ability to recover from, and float above, whatever challenges life throws our way.

         Two and a half years into this pandemic, and we have been tested.  Our lives have been thrown upside down.  Each of us has suffered, and the pandemic has taken its toll.  Since the arrival of COVID-19, anxiety, depression, isolation, and aloneness have run rampant.  That was evident in doctoral research I conducted of our congregation in the summer of 2020.  And we have seen similar trends play out nationally and globally since then.  We – every human on our planet - is hurting.

         The Jewish recipe for resilience is a simple one.  Look for strength from God, and be in relationship with others.

         That approach is encapsulated in this morning’s Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 29.  Our ancestors gathered before Moses’ death.  They were there to formally re-affirm their faith in God, before embarking on the next stage of their journey.

         The text reads: atem nitzavim hayom kul’chem – On this day, you stand here together, all of you.

         Bible scholars describe the moment as a covenantal re-affirmation ceremony.  But we might call it the Jewish version of resiliency training.  Reaffirm faith in God.  But don’t do it alone.  On this day, you stand here together, all of you.

         As our ancestors gathered to reaffirm their covenant with God collectively – so too do we gather here together today.  All of us, in person or online.  We are all together.

         The English author and theologian G.K. Chesterton once observed: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”   A century later and that sentiment remains true today.   Atem nitavim hayom kulchem – we are standing here together, reliant on each other as we struggle to find our way in an uncertain world. 

         The covenantal ritual in this morning’s Torah reading was considered so important by medieval Jewish commentators that they sought to imagine every detail about this moment of gathering.  And it’s worth noting that Abraham Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides (of 12th and 13th century Spain respectively) both argued that the ceremony took place in front of the Israelites’ Ark of the Covenant: the sacred storage space containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The ark bore witness to the Israelites’ promises, and held them accountable to the values referenced in its exterior design, and on the precious tablets of the 10 commandments that were safeguarded within.

         Like our ancestors of old, we too come together on this sacred day…in front of our holy ark….searching for resilience in a world that has been bruised and scarred by COVID.  We too come face to face with an ark, containing holy words of Torah, that bear witness to us and the promises we make on this day. 

You may not realize it, but the ark that is now in our space is a roadmap to the resilience we’re seeking.  Its design revolves around our recipe: Look for strength from God, and be in relationship with others.

This morning, I’d like to reflect on these two notions, and to highlight how they’re embedded in our new ark’s design.  We do this exploration in the hope that our new ark will be an ever-present reminder that Judaism is a wellspring of strength and hope, for everyone who seeks it. 

         We begin by turning our attention towards faith, and our search for God can be found at the very center of the ark before us.  The varied colors call to mind Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.  The burning bush was a pivotal turning point on Moses’ faith journey: inspiring awe and teaching him humility in the face of the miraculous mystery of the Divine. 

The diverse color palette alludes to a teaching from the Zohar, the medieval mystical commentary on Torah, which observes that a flame is always changing color.  Even as the color of the flame changes, God is constant.  Similarly, at the Burning Bush, God shares the Divine Name with Moses: Eh-yeh asher Ehyeh: I am that which I am, and I will be what I will be.  God’s name, and the essence of the fiery spark remind us that even as the world changes around us, God is the reassuring constant.

         There are also wood elements of our ark, meant to resemble olive, connecting us to the Land of Israel.  But olive trees are not sustainable.  Therefore, our ark is crafted from red gum trees.  For every red gum that is harvested, four are planted in their place.  Sustainable wood in our sanctuary reminds us that even as we yearn for God to take care of us, we have a responsibility to care for our vulnerable planet, which God created.

         There is one other signifier of God that I want to point out.  In Hebrew, God’s name is often represented by the letter Shin. 

         If you turn your gaze to the top of the ark, the intersecting reeds (12 of them, for the 12 tribes of ancient Israel) are evocative of three shin’s.

Shin is an abbreviation for Shaddai, one of God’s many names, as is commonly seen on the back side of scrolls tucked into mezuzahs.  It’s the reason that shin’s also appear on the outside of mezuzahs, like the one that hangs on the doorway to our own Sanctuary. 

The letter Shin also calls to mind healing and peace.  As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book The Book of Letters, writes: “Shin is the letter just before the end.  It is the fitting together of all the parts.  The restoration of all the scattered shards.  [Shin begins the Hebrew words for] Shalom.  Completion.  Wholeness.”

         For those of us who come here this morning in search of hope, healing, and completion: the blazing colors, the sustainable wood, and the letter shin, all remind us that God is here in this sacred place…patiently waiting for us to call out.  As the Psalmist wrote: “karov Adonai L’chol Korav, l’chol asher yikra’u’hu v’emet – The Holy

One is near to all who call out to God, to all who call out with sincerity.”[1]

         Resilience - the strength to ultimately float above it all – doesn’t just spring from our faith in God.  It also grows out of our connections with each other, and our ark reminds us of that as well.

         Teivah is the Hebrew word used to describe the Ark that Noah built just before the Flood.  Ibn Ezra, commenting on the word teivah in Genesis 6, pleaded with his readers: “Don’t call Noah’s ark a boat! They weren’t going anywhere.”

         If you look at the bottom of our ark, you’ll see that it’s curved.  The design was specifically meant to reference a floating vessel.  And Ibn Ezra’s observation applies to us too.  We have not sought spiritual refuge here in order to embark on a geographic journey.  But we are all here to be moved, and to be sustained and lifted up by others.  To join together in floating down the currents of whatever comes our way.  To invoke Chesterton again: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”   Atem Nitzavim kulchem – we are all standing here – and journeying Jewishly.  Together.  That is the essence of our sacred community, and it is encoded on this ark before us.

         The Torah also uses teivah to describe the basket that Moses floated in.

         Our rabbis were struck by the details that the Biblical Author provides about Moses’ early years, and his journey in the teivat gomeh – the wicker basket.  And they couldn’t help but notice that, even with all of that detail, the Biblical Author doesn’t think to provide us with the names of Moses’ parents until much later in the narrative.  This teaches us that Moses is in Every person.  The Torah is a story about every single family – not just Moses’. We all have to navigate seasons of vulnerability and challenge.  And we all have the capacity to float, and ultimately rise above those challenges, in order to serve and give back, to lead, and to help others.

         That too is part of the essence of our congregation: we are a place of refuge, to be sure.  But with the hope that…over time…that the ones who come seeking support might go on to lead and support others.  Our community thrives when we all go on this journey of sharing together.

         The reference to Moses’ basket also carries social justice resonances.  Moses’ basket becomes a vehicle of transportation between the world of those in need (Moses’ family of origin), and one of privilege (the Egyptian royal household).  Moses’ leadership is built on his ability to navigate freely between those two worlds.  His awareness of where he came from enables him to lead with empathy and sensitivity during the long 40 year journey wandering through the desert.[2]  Umberto Cassuto, of early 20th century Italy, echoes that reading in observing that one of the things Noah and Moses had in common is that they were both worthy of being saved in their respective teivahs – because they were innately predisposed to live a life down the line rooted in the notion of serving others.

         Atem nitzavim – all of us stand here…together.  Our Chasidic tradition teaches us that the text emphasizes that we are together, all of us, so that no one person can say ‘It’s not my responsibility.’  Each of us must do our part to make our congregation and the world a better place.

         Powerfully, then, the reference to Noah’s teivah, and Moses’ too, in our new ark, reminds us of our responsibility to others.  Not just in terms of economic justice.  But in terms of what it means to be compassionate and caring.  The floating teivah is emblematic of empathy: moving us from a place of suffering in our own lives, to a place of being able to use those experiences to help and support others…a value that so many of us have put into practice over and over again during this pandemic season.

         Here we are…on Yom Kippur…together.  After 5783 years of Jewish history, we are still in search of pathways to resilience.  We are still gathering…together…in search of that strength.

         And like our ancestors of old, we reaffirm the value of that quest, in front of an ark that is emblematic of the keystones of our Tradition.  This new ark of our synagogue, which we consecrate this morning, tells the story of the recipe for Jewish hope and resilience: Look for strength from God, and be in relationship with others.

May we be blessed with many long years in which we will be privileged to come together, in good health, in this sacred space, before this ark, to rejoice, and to learn from the scrolls that are protected within.   

         And every time we gaze upon the ark, may we grapple anew with what it means to seek out God’s peacefulness and wholeness in the midst of a world turned upside down and torn asunder.  And may its narrative of Noah and of Moses – each floating down treacherous waters, not so that they would simply survive…but so that they would live in order to serve others…give us hope, and purpose: that our own sufferings might be redeemed by service to the ones who are our neighbors.

Keyn Yhi Ratzon.  May this be God’s will.

[1] Ps 145:18

[2] The Torah: A Modern Commentary (2005 revision), p. 361

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784