Pekudei: Beauty and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

Shabbat Shalom!

This week we conclude the book of Shmot/Exodus: the Mishkan
(Portable Sanctuary) is finished, under Moshe’s supervision, and
when the final pieces are put together, the Presence of God
rests on the Mishkan in the form of a cloud. (Cf. Shmot 40:34)
When the cloud lifts, the people would follow it, and when it
rested, there they would camp.

There is much to be said about the final few verses of Exodus,
but for today I’m interested in the idea that the Mishkan was not
complete, as it were, until it incorporated elements of both
human design and images of nature. Even if we accept at face
value the idea that the Mishkan was built according to a precise
Divine plan, it was not made “operational”- according to these
verses- until it also bore the form of a cloud. Sockets and planks
and weavings are almost paradigmatic of what humans create;
clouds, just as clearly, are something purely natural, beyond the
capacity of humans to create or disperse.

To me, the teaching here is that a sacred space built by human
hands- with attention paid to its beauty and capacity to take us
out of our ordinary experience- must also include reminders that
the natural world is wondrous and extraordinary and holy,
existing for its own purposes and not merely as means to our
ends. In this way, a sacred space can be both beautiful and
humbling; beautiful for its artistry, and humbling in the way that
being the vast beauty of nature is awesome and overwhelming.

Perhaps in the Mishkan, the beauty came from the
craftsmanship and the precious materials, while humility was
evoked when people experienced God’s Presence as a cloud,
something from the greater world which transcends society,
something beyond our ability to control or contain.

Last week, as part of the COEJL conference, I had the pleasure
of visiting two synagogues in Maryland which have made their
worship spaces both artistically beautifully and also deeply
evocative of the natural world. Not only that, but as part of their
commitment to include values of environmental stewardship as
part of synagogue life, these buildings were built and are
maintained with “green” principles, even at slight extra cost in the
short run.

First, Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue, has instituted a
“Green Shalom” ethic into the everyday workings of synagogue
life. Not only that, but the central worship space of the synagogue
has been crafted to evoke a tree from the land of Israel, thus
linking the idea of the Torah as a “Tree of Life” to the trees of the
land, which are in a very real way the source of our life. Go to: < > and look for the links on the
left hand side. Find the links for “Pictures,” where you’ll see the
sanctuary, and “Green Shalom” for ideas on how this synagogue
has incorporated reverence for nature into its operating

Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue, has a somewhat
different approach to linking worship with the experience of
nature. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find good pictures on their web
site, but what they’ve done (among other things), both to save
energy and evoke the Cloud of Glory in the Mishkan, is to hang
white fabric- almost like giant sails- around the inside of their
sanctuary, diffusing the natural light from the large windows
while at the same time making the sanctuary feel light and open.
Go to: < > . Look for the
link to “history/ blg” at the top of the left hand column to read
more about the principles of both spiritual and environmental
design which went into their building project. You have to scroll
down about halfway into the column to get to the part about
design, but the first part is interesting too.

Finally, to read about the COEJL conference, you can follow this
link to a nice story in the Washington Jewish Week:

Shabbat Shalom,


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