Where is God, and what does the Holy One want from us? These timeless questions animate so many of us spiritual seekers.
Of course, there are better places to look for an answer than in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, unless you consider barbecuing as divine service. If you read Tzav literally, you come away with a clear sense that the Holy One has a soft spot for a good steak and some grain (perhaps baked into a delicious loaf of bread) to dip in some warm olive oil.
I’m all for a good steak now and then, but few believe that God was ever a red- meat eater ... or a vegetarian or vegan. Torah, perhaps updating the sacrificial practices of the Israelites’ biblical contemporaries, organized a hierarchy of sacrificial offerings to quench what was once understood as the religio-gastronomical desires of the Highest Power.
Yet, when later rabbinic commentators studied the sacrifices, they quickly rejected the notion that God actually wanted meat, fowl or grains. They argued that God instead sought out the intention with which the Israelites brought their offerings. For our rabbinic teachers, the sacrifices were merely the means through which the Israelites transformed themselves into servants of God.
It seems, though, that the Holy One might not really want the kavanah (intentions) with which we bring the offerings, either. No, the Holy One, Source of all holiness, just wants us to discover the holiness within.
We hear it in the words of that folk spiritual that inspires thousands in synagogues and summer camps. Combining “Sanctuary” (written by John Thompson and Randy Scruggs) with “Pitchu Li” (Psalm 118:19, arranged by Rabbi Shefa Gold), “Sanctuary/Pitchu Li” lays it all out for us:
Lord, prepare me, to be a sanctuary, / pure and holy, tried and true. /
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you. / Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek avo vam odeh Ya.
At Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas and at Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, we are learning to redirect our hearts. We are slowly learning to unlearn certain lessons from our past — that God wants a side of beef or is focused primarily on how we prepare our own side of beef — to discover that God wants us to open ourselves to the holiness within.
Too often, we look for holiness, and the Holy One, in places outside ourselves. A few Torah portions ago, when Moses climbed the mountain and seemingly disappeared for 39 or 40 days, the Israelites felt bereft and alone. Without someone to remind them that God is HaMakom (literally, “The Place,” meaning God is everywhere and everyplace), they felt abandoned. So they built for themselves an egel hazahav (a golden calf) to worship and embrace. Unable to recognize that the spiritual reservoir was found within, they created a false sense of security outside themselves.
When the smoke cleared, when the frenzy finally subsided, those who remained true to the spiritual journey heard a new call. It was couched in the form of a command to build a sanctuary where the Israelites could turn to be assured that God was always with them. The mishkan (the Tabernacle, a movable sanctuary in space), then, was really a compromise, the result of a failure of the wilderness generation to find what they needed within.
Today’s soul searchers — especially the Jewish ones — find spiritual strength in the one place that the wilderness-wandering Israelites failed to search. Today’s spiritual seekers learn anew that holiness and wholeness are no farther away than the depth of our own beings. Using theological language, the Holy One resides within us already.
Thus the prayer song “Sanctuary/Pitchi Li” redirects us from God outside and beyond, but rather to the Immanent Essence within. It reminds us that with regard to the Ein Sof (the mystical Presence that has no end), even our very bodies contain, and channel, the spiritual energy. We, who are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), encompass within ourselves the holiness that exists everywhere. So wherever we go, we take our mishkan with us.
We need not focus on an external sanctuary because we are — or at least we can become — the sanctuary itself. It is our rediscovering of the holiness within, not bringing animal sacrifices to altars outside, that piques the interest of the Holy One.
Then we will discover some answers: That immanence, not altars and animal sacrifices, may just be the essence of the Holy One.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.