The headlines are full these days of stories about what people are doing in the name of religion. And I needn't tell you that these are not necessarily good stories. Most of them are shocking, horrifying, disturbing. There are stories about people attempting to impose their particular religious values on everyone in our society. Stories of fundamentalism gone wild, fomenting violence and hatred. Stories of oppression and murder in the name of God or of holiness. It's happening in the Middle East movements toward theocracy. It's happening in Israel with those who want to force women to the back of the bus. It's happening right here in America. I know so many people, good, thoughtful, amazing people who have had it. They're throwing in the towel on religion. And I can't say I blame them. Were it not for a couple of conditions, I might be one of those people who want nothing to do with a religious life. I might be one of those who think that traditional observances lead to no good.
But I'm not giving up on religion. I still believe that a religious life can not only lead to good, but it is the best hope we have in humanity of repairing this world. Yes, the headlines may be full of extremists perverting religion toward their aims, people who oppress in the name of holiness. But in this talk today I will show us how true holiness is something that the most reasonable among us can embrace. I will show us how, if more of us understood what a religious, holy life really means, fewer of us would throw in the towel. In fact, we would live our lives more deeply as our best selves.
As we complete the book of Exodus today, the Israelites fashion the Mishkan--the portable, magnificent tent that serves as an earthly "house" for the indwelling of the Divine spirit among the Israelites. It is the place where the sacrifices are offered, where the priests serve in purity, and the Levites sing to God. The detail about this construction is unbelievable. The Torah wants us to understand how everything, even the tiniest elements of this complex structure were carried out exactly according to instructions by the Israelites. The age-old question here is why such exacting detail? Yes, of course, we understand that the Mishkan was important. It's where the worship of God is centered. But such detail!
We begin to get an answer to this quandary at the end of the construction process. The Torah says, "K'chol asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe, ken asu bnai Yisrael et kol ha'avodah," "Everything that God had commanded Moses, the Israelites carried out all the work." "Vayar Moshe et kol hamelachah, v'hinei asu otah ka'asher tzivah HaShem, ken asu, vayivarech otam Moshe." "And Moses saw all the handiwork, and behold they had done it all as God had commanded, and Moses blessed them." Does this description ring a bell--the idea of doing work, completing the work, seeing the handiwork, and offering a blessing? It's an echo of Genesis! God looked upon all the work that God had done in the six days, and God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.
The Mishkan is the Creation of the world--in miniature! The Midrash Tanchuma says it explicitly: Just as God spread out the heavens like a curtain, so too the Israelites made curtains of goat's hair. Just as God separated the heavenly waters from the lower waters, so too the Parochet, the inner curtain separates the Holy of Holies from all else. Just as God gathered the waters from the dry land, so too we gathered up the water in the copper basins of the Mishkan. Etcetera, etcetera. In building that Mishkan, we are showing that we have the power to be just like God!
There's one more key element about all the detailed emphasis on the Mishkan. The Mishkan isn't the first group building project of the Israelites. There was another product of Israelite handiwork, and it wasn't a good thing. It was, of course, the Golden Calf, the ultimate abomination, an act of avodah zarah, of idolatry. Our sages explain that the building of the Mishkan was really an act of Tikkun, of repair and healing from the damage wrought by the Golden Calf. So let's put it all together: by showing us exactly how to build the Mishkan, God is showing us how to use our hands, our skills, our talents NOT for idolatry, but for Tikkun Olam, for Repairing the World, literally by building the whole world as God had built it--albeit in miniature--together as a community.
In other words, God showed us, after the sin of the Calf, how to be holy. The sages ask a question: when the Torah says that Moses blessed them after building that Mishkan, what blessing did Moses say? And the blessing that Moses gave is one that you probably have heard, but not realized it. If you have ever seen the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, there's a very cute scene when Tevya's son-in-law, Motel the taylor, gets a new sewing machine. They're so excited about the "new arrival" that they bring the rabbi in to bless the sewing machine. They ask, 'Rabbi, is there a blessing for a sewing machine?' The Rabbi responds, "There's a blessing for everything!" And he goes to the sewing machine, and in correct Hebrew he says 'yehi leratzon she'tishrei hashekhinah b'chol ma'aseh yadecha' 'May it be your will that the Divine presence rests in all the works of your hands.' Guess what? That, according to the sages, was the blessing that Moses said over the Israelites upon building the Mishkan!
And that's really what holiness in Judaism is all about: it's all about what we're doing with our hands, our actions in this life. Are we building the world up as the partners of God, or are we destroying the world with our hands and actions, making golden calfs and all kinds of idolatries? It's a pretty simple definition. If only life were as simple as that...
I have absolutely no doubt that every religious fanatic who wants to manipulate the political system to impose their will on others, who wants to use religion as a tool to silence dissent--they genuinely believe that they're using their hands, their actions to do the will of God. In fact, you could argue that this whole notion of holiness as taking action to partner with God in making the world in God's image--that's the root of religious fanaticism!
And you would be right, except for one thing: you have to understand the significance of Mishkan in contrast to the Golden Calf. When the Israelites saw that Moses was taking too long in coming down from Mount Sinai, they freaked out. They were terrified. And from their fears, they cried out, "Asei lanu Elohim," Make us a God! By contrast, the tablets of the 10 Commandments, which Moses smashed on the Golden Calf, were called "Ma'aseh Elohim," "The work OF God." They're exact opposites. That which is Holy is OF God. That which is idolatrous, is 'Make-us-a-God,' it's our impulse to MAKE GOD according to our will! When those tablets were smashed, we lost our direct link to something directly made by God. The best we can do now, is follow God's instructions to a tee, and make the Mishkan in the manner that God creates.
On the one hand, there is the Golden Calf, something that you could even say came from our misdirected good intentions, but that ultimately represents our own projections of what we want God to be. That is the essence of what is NOT holy. On the other hand, there is the Mishkan, an act of our humble recognition that the world we build represents something far greater than ourselves. The Golden Calf, albeit well-intentioned, is an act of arrogance and insecurity. The Mishkan is an act of humility, repair, and hard-earned wisdom. Both the Golden Calf and the Mishkan represent our people acting to create a center of religious life in our world. The calf emerges from our deepest place of fear. The Mishkan emerges from our deepest place of love.
That's the difference. And all too easy to get confused, and to fall into idolatry, when your real intention is to be holy. That's the core idea of the Torah. Holiness is the way that we can repair the world. But never forget: holiness is dangerous! To play with holiness is to play with fire. Used correctly, it can transform the world for the better. Use it without wisdom, and it can become a weapon more dangerous than bombs, a weapon that destroys souls.
People who use their religion as a weapon to silence others, to limit other's rights, to build up their own power, to wield authority--these people might genuinely believe that they do God's work. In fact, they are building a Golden Calf. They are, in fact, saying 'Asei lanu Elohim,' 'Make us a God,' a God who will convene to their will, to their arrogance, to their fears.
But there are so many others in this world, good people, who use their power to act in different ways--to pursue justice, to stand up for the oppressed, to relieve suffering, release the bound--these people are continuing the work of building that Mishkan, of acting in holiness. These people are doing 'Ma'aseh Elohim,' the True work of God.
It's important to point out that the masters of Kabbalah teach us that true holiness requires both a sense of love and fear, in proper balance. And that's significant. There are times when we must be willing to be fierce about our values. We must, at times, be willing to take political action, or to use the media, to serve the cause of justice. But our sages teach us, the proper balance of motivations of our actions is always to incline toward the side of love instead of fear. And that means that even if we want to manipulate the political system or the media toward our aims, and that impulse comes from our willfulness, then we need to think again about our actions. In other words, our sense of humility should overcome our fierceness whenever possible.
This is a very difficult balance to find. Sometimes, we're not sure if we're acting out of holiness or from our idolatrous arrogance. But the rule of thumb is, if you're worried about being arrogant and manipulative with your religious beliefs, you're more likely to be on the right track. And so the root of the truest holiness is this: it's wisdom transformed into action. True holiness is any action that we do that is borne of our own hard-earned mistakes, from our humble desire to Repair the World. To truly be holy is to live our lives each day doing the work of buildnig the Mishkan, of building this world as a Ma'aseh Elohim, as the work of God, not of ourselves. Holiness is to live so that the shekhinah, the Divine Presence dwells in all the works of our hands--at work, with our beloved, with our children, our friends, with strangers. So long as we live humbly, using our actions to increase justice, to relieve burdens, to bring kindness, to end oppression, then we're getting holiness right. May we all come to embrace the true meaning of holiness in our lives. May our example light the way for others who are confused about what holiness means. May we overcome our own human arrogance, and may we truly build this world to be a home for God.