Shabbat Pesach 5780 – A Tabernacle by Any Other Name

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Not long ago, we sat in shul and read in great detail about the construction of the tabernacle. We read how different types of wood and different lengths of the wood were to be used, so that it would be done just right.  And if we were to get it just right, the glory of Gd would shine upon us. Of course, a major iteration of this followed with the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora and with the advent of rabbinic Judaism. There would no longer be A temple.

Things became a bit less exact over the course of many centuries. And now, here we all are, on erev Shabbat, with computers in hand or on a table, with a discreet camera mounted within, beaming, or at least reflecting, Gd’s presence among us, as we prepare to welcome Shabbat.

Just a few weeks ago, the sanctuary that we have come to call our spiritual home, became temporarily obsolete. But worry not! As I reviewed my emails from just this week, I find numerous messages from American Jewish University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Congregation Shearith Israel, Hillel at Boston University and Tufts University, the Jewish Regional Children’s Service, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the American Jewish World Service and, of course, from many of you – enough to actually compete in number with the recent profusion of medically-related emails from the CDC, the Baylor Heart Hospital, the American College of Cardiology, the AMA, etc, etc. I have been inundated!!

In an impressive feat of the American Jewish community, overnight, it seems, Jewish educators, rabbis and lay leaders alike have become technologically savvy, using Zoom, YouTube, FaceTime and other social media vehicles, to connect with large numbers of interested Jews. Courses sprung up. Services are now widely being streamed. Curricula have been reimagined and reconstituted. Synagogues, camps and schools have had concerts, comedians and educators, who have lectured or performed for many hundreds.

Virtual minyamin have been constituted, enabling those in mourning to say kaddish. A couple of weeks ago, the CJLS, the Conservative movement’s law committee, sanctioned the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish without the physical presence of a minyan—a decision that fundamentally changed one the most ancient ritual standards we have.  Undoubtedly, other life cycle events have been held in similar ways. But bending the rules in the wake of our societal issue allows family and friends to be of comfort.

Jewish institutions – local and beyond – have responded to this crisis in ways that have made our Jewish community and even many of our rituals relevant and uplifting.

On a personal note, I have reached out to people that I only infrequently am in touch with. A rebirth in relationships has resulted from calls and emails to friends in Boston, Florida, Austin, Missouri, Kansas and London.  Every night after dinner, I ask Nancy who we should get in touch with. Our cousin initiated a Zoom call before Pesach with family in many cities. In normal times, we would have had sedars separately anyway, but this virus-enforced isolation prompted all of us to get together virtually. It was wonderful!

So we sit here in our homes not spiritually depleted, not missing the presence of Gd, but full of Gd’s presence, knowing that even if the physical sanctuary we have built is not accessible, the virtual sanctuary we have erected is serving us quite well for the time being.

And while our sanctuary matters – a lot – our current situation makes us realize that earthly materials, no matter how precious, are not, in the end, sacred by themselves. They can only become sacred when they facilitate the baring of our souls, and when we in turn show love we hold in our hearts for each other, for the Jewish people, and for God.

These past couple of weeks have been difficult on many fronts. We have seen the number of cases of coronavirus rise sharply in our country and throughout the world, and we have also seen the terrible consequences it brings. We may not have even reached the peak of this pandemic, nor do we know whether that peak will be the only one, or just the first in a series. We do not know when we will all be able to return to all of our normal activities or when we will be able to visit and hug loved ones far away.

But what we do know, and what we have demonstrated, is that when Jews put their hearts and minds together, creating sacred time and activities that keep us together in faith, in relationship with each other and with God, a beautiful and meaningful design can and does emerge.