Exodus 35:1 –40:38
Let’s be honest. Most of us are scared.
The COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly, store shelves are emptying, the stock market is crashing, people are losing their jobs, and many of us are staying at home in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. And far too many us are already displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus and seeking or receiving treatment. Just two weeks ago, the world seemed so different, so much more stable than today, at least for Marylanders.
It’s ok to say we are scared. Indeed, we need to name our fears and anxieties. How else can we overcome them? Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Ben Zoma taught:
“Who is mighty? One who controls his own self/urges, as it is said, ‘One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one who rules one’s spirit than one who conquers a city’ [Prov. 16:32]” [Pirke Avot 4:1]
Given the worry and uncertainty in the world around us, we might be tempted to give into our yetzer hara (our urge towards evil). According to the rabbis, the yetzer hara is what controls those dark inner voices we all have. You know the ones I mean, the voices which tell us to give up hope, to stop trying, to give in to our base instincts, worries and anxieties.
Ben Zoma reminds us that we are in charge of our decision-making trees, that we can talk back to the yetzer hara, and that when we do so we are increasing our strength and our resilience: we become like mighty warriors.
As the world seems to darken around us, Rabbi Noah Farkas draws our attention to the beginning of the Torah, when the world was filled with darkness, chaos and emptiness. He writes:
“God shed light upon the deep, and divided the light from the darkness by naming it light and dark, and by choosing to look upon the chaos and making a world. It’s the most important choice in the Bible. God could have let the chaos stand on its own, but instead God chose to create. Confronting the darkness, God called upon the light, and the world came into being. And so it is with each of us at this moment. We can let the chaos stand or we can look upon the fear that is gripping us and cast light upon it. For it is through dark moments like this where we can choose to create something beautiful.”
Our yetzer hara tells us to binge on Netflix and ice cream, play video games, or do whatever it is we do to retreat from the world. However, we have other options. We can seek ways to stay connected; we can support those who are working tirelessly to help defeat the virus and treat the sick; we can find new avenues to keep our economy going, or support our children’s education, or look out for our neighbors, or the myriad other ways we can make a difference; we can create a whole new world.
To help us stay grounded, we can also continue to learn from Torah, and this week’s parasha is rich with inspiration. On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Exodus with VaYak’hei/Pekudei. In it the Israelites, stuck in the Wilderness of Sinai, finally finish building the mishkan, the special Tent of Meeting where the Divine Presence would dwell in their midst. They are ready to begin their journey into an unknown new world, away from the slavery of Egypt and towards the Promised Land!
In the midst of all of this, there is one detail, which especially caught my attention, and also Rabbi Farkas’:
“Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” [Ex. 35:2]
On the one hand (and there are always at least two hands) there is nothing new here. This past week has been one of frenetic activity for me (and perhaps for you as well). With our amazing synagogue team, I have been working non-stop to try to move our temple from a physical operation to a virtual one: developing online content and communication mechanisms; life-cycle, education, and pastoral care protocols; and continuing outreach to and support for our members and neighbors. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my life. It is easy in this environment (at least for me) to say that we have no time for anything but our work. In a way, I imagine this is how the Israelites felt as they built the mishkan. Their very lives and their future depended upon bringing God into their midst. Who could possibly stop, even for Shabbat? But that would be a mistake. We also need time to rest, we desperately need Shabbat.
We already knew this, at least intellectually if not in our kishkes (our guts). However, Rabbi Farkas introduces a second way to interpret the commandment to rest on Shabbat. He notes that just when things get the most intense, the Torah reminds us that our work is not everything. Yes, we need to work, but we also need to remember why we work.
Whether we are focused on homeschooling our kids, or keeping our businesses going in an ever-changing economy, whether we are keeping our infrastructure intact, or providing medical care, this crisis provides us with the opportunity to step back and take stock. Why are we doing what we do? Is the way we are used to doing things the best way to realize our deepest ‘whys’? How can we use this time to rethink and recreate the rhythms of our lives to better serve our higher purpose? How can we face the darkness and what can we choose to create?
This Shabbat let’s take the time to catch our breath. Let’s bring light to the darkness with our Shabbat candles, and conquer our fears enough to create a true Shabbat Shalom, a sabbath of rest, reflection and peace.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras