In the middle of the night, an Iowa corn farmer who’s down on his luck hears a voice: “If you build it, they will come.” He dismisses it as a dream. He thinks he’s losing his mind. But it keeps echoing in his ears. “If you build it, they will come.” As you know, in the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character starts to build a baseball diamond right in his corn field. As the project gets underway, the great departed heroes of baseball start showing up – one-by-one emerging from among the cornstalks until the whole of the Chicago White Socks appear pitching, rounding the bases, and sliding for home. He built it. They came.
Hollywood has a brilliant way of telling ancient stories in new settings. Or to use a Jane Jacobs phrase, ‘putting old wine in new skins’. This is the story of a building project. It is a story about believing in a shared purpose and making the merely imagined into a tangible reality. It is a story of what is built, within us and between us, when we labour together.
The quintessentially Jewish ‘field of dreams’ was a building project in the wilderness of Sinai, in the expansive unknown between Egypt and the Promised Land. The construction was not of a baseball diamond (that certainly would have created quite a different religion!), but a series of portable tents and an ark. What both stories share most vividly is the understanding that if you want to bring people together and bond them to one another, start building.
In his book The Home We Build Together, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues the experience that made the ancient Israelites into a single and united community was not when they were lifted out of the crushing oppression of slavery, and it was not when they received Torah and witnessed the awesome rumbling of Divine revelation at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was when they built the mishkan together. Made of colourful fabrics, animal skins, wood, and gold, the mishkan, the Tabernacle, was the tented enclosure that traveled with the Israelites throughout their desert wanderings and housed the ark of the covenant with the Ten Commandments at its center.
Sack’s observation is an astute one. You might think something as traumatic as a shared history of oppression and as powerful as the miraculous, sea-splitting liberation would be strong glue unifying the people as one. Or you might think that standing together at the foot of a mountain blazing with fire, shrouded in cloud and smoke, and rumbling with a voice nothing on this earth can parallel would forever tie these individuals together. I can imagine them reminiscing, saying, “Hey, remember that day when the curtain was lifted off of material reality and we all witnessed the ultimate truth of existence?” But no. Those experiences certainly changed the lives of the Israelites, forever altering their perceptions of reality and their place in it, forever highlighting their sense of the limits of human power and the forces that are greater than our Pharoah-like egos and interests, but the Torah describes these experiences as supernatural events, a Divine hand and an outstretched arm breaking through the natural order. In other words, the Israelites are the objects of actions that happen to them. They are witnesses, participants, but they are not agents of their own experience. It was only when they were asked to build together that what they experienced side-by-side affected how they stood face-to-face.
I want to look with you at some of the specific instructions the Israelites were given in the building of the mishkan and see what insights they can offer for our thinking about what and how we build together.
First, everyone is required to contribute a half shekel. Call it membership dues or a tax or community-wide buy-in. This modest amount meant that everyone in the community was able to contribute and everyone’s contributions were needed. When the project was complete, there were no donation plaques announcing that the Goldbergs funded the altar. Everyone could look at the completed structure and feel a sense of shared ownership. Every single Israelite could say, “I helped build that.” And every time the rituals of the mishkan were enacted for the whole community, to atone for sins, to bring a thanksgiving offering or a peace offering, the Israelites could look at one another and say, “We all built that together.”
Second, the Israelites are also instructed, “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person ‘asher yidbenu libo/whose heart inspires them to generosity” (Ex. 25:2). In addition to the democratic, egalitarian contribution of the universal half-shekel, people are also encouraged to personalize what they give and how they give. For some, a half shekel is all they are up for. Others are so moved and excited by the project that their hearts open and they need avenues for giving material expression to their feeling and commitment. They are given a menu of items to choose from, a registry of needed materials, and the open invitation to give as much as they are so moved.
The 20th century Hasidic Slonimer Rebbe commented on the phrase “kol ish asher yidbenu libo/everyone whose heart inspires them to give.” He translated it to mean “a real mentsch gives not only money, but also gives their heart.”
Commenting on the same phrase, the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism says, “Consider well what your heart impels you. This is a basic lesson in life, to learn from your own heart and to choose what your work is, and then to put your entire heart in your work.” The half shekel was a requirement, a communal obligation. This other instruction was voluntary and summoned individual generosity of spirit. To get any project done, there has to be a sense of shared obligation but there also has to be room for passion and individuality. Being part of the work of a group, gives me the opportunity to discover how my own growth and my own work in the world can be expressed in what we do collectively.
Third, not everyone can or should have the same task to do. Betzal’el was the master artist, imbued with divine creative spirit, skill, and artistic know-how to attend to all aspects of craft for the mishkan. Oholiav was the master tent builder. Once the mishkan was complete, Aaron and his sons were anointed as Priests, the only ones who could enter the inner sanctuary and perform ritual tasks on behalf of the community. The Levites were the assistants, the foot washers and holy schleppers. The rest of the people were largely beneficiaries of what the Priests and Levites did, but there is an important detail of the Israelites’ role. Every time Moses entered the Tent to communicate with God, the Israelites stood up outside their own tents. They stood with Moses, supporting him to do his task, supporting his leadership, so the whole community could benefit from it.
The inherited division of Priest, Levites, and the general populace was erased when the Temple was destroyed generations later, but the distinctions are reminders that we each have different strengths and skills, different roles to play. It is in the diversity of our various roles that we collectively get the job done.
Fourth, the essence and purpose of the project sits right at its centre. Whenever the Israelites move camp, the ark leads the way. Whenever the Israelites make camp, the ark and the mishkan around it are set up in the centre of the encampment. The focus of the community is always clear. At the centre of the community are the Ten Commandments – the communal covenant for living life together – with their moral obligations and the rituals that will build their character and awareness.
And their focus was also on live revelation. Rising from opposite ends of the ark over its lid were two figures facing each other, their golden wings spread up and over the ark. Anytime God communicated with Moses, the Holy One would appear in the space between these two figures facing each other and gazing down at the ark. This is an incredible image. Live and unfolding revelation is accessible in the space between two faces who are both looking at each other and are looking together at the shared covenant. The covenant and the Ten Commandments are unchanging. They are the values and ideals to which the community aspires. And they exist alongside what is alive and responding to the moment – truth unfolding. These two dimensions – the eternal and the changing, the ideal and the evolving – together shape how everyone in the community interacts with one another.
The centrality of the ark also underscores the fact that the relationships between community members are not only ends in themselves. The people are in relationship for a purpose, a purpose they could only fulfill by continuing to build together for the rest of their lives. The project doesn’t end. Their shared purpose gives meaning, direction, and moral weight to their relationships and their relationships give daily, lived substance to their ideal vision.
Finally – and this is really the ‘if you build it they will come’ moment – the Israelites are told, “ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham/build Me a sanctuary so that I shall dwell in them” (Exodus 25:8). Our Sages ask, “In them? Shouldn’t it say ‘and I shall dwell in it?’ Isn’t the whole purpose to build a house for God to dwell in?” No, teach the Sages; you should understand the verse to be saying ‘build me a sanctuary so that I can live among you, within you – you, the community.’ The Divine presence doesn’t need an apartment. Even in the Torah the ideas and images of God were not so simplistic. When we build a space for holiness and ultimate values, that holiness, those values, dwell in us, among us. If you build it, what you build will live in your whole being and in the life you share. If you build it, it will become part of you. If you build it, you will arrive together in a field of connection and intention you never could have reached on your own. In the course of building, the Israelites became a community, side-by-side and face-to-face. They gained clarity that they had on-going work to do together, that they had a powerful vision of the common good they were aiming for, and they had a path to get there.
How we connect to community has everything to do with what we build together.
What will you be part of building this year? With which community or communities will you roll up your sleeves, throw in your heart, and drop in your two cents? What values and vision will you place at the centre of your life and in the spaces between you and the others you build with?
There are two building projects at the DJC this year that I want you to consider being part of. You’re going to hear more about each of them later, but I want to mention them now.
A most urgent building project we are undertaking as a Jewish community is building the capacity to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. You will hear from our Social Justice committee throughout the High Holydays about our campaign to raise funds to sponsor a family and our on-going efforts to bring aid and support to refugees finding a home and a new life in Toronto. One of the values in our ark states that one who saves a life saves an entire world. Let’s aim to each put in our half-shekel and, if your heart moves you and if your sense of justice guides you, please give generously.
The second building project is taking the form of a series of community conversations, learning, and reflection we will be holding throughout this coming year. We are calling it A Year of Wrestling. We will explore big questions about the community we want to become in our next stage of growth. I hope you will join us in sharing your experiences and vision, listening to one another, grappling, and learning with one another.
May our efforts be fruitful. May our labours and our commitments bring us closer to one another. And may this be a year of good and important work.