As I wheeled my shopping cart down the aisle of the local market on my weekly grocery run, a toddler riding in his mother's cart came up the other side. He was one of the students in the nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open. He pointed and shouted, "Mom, look, it's God!"
My young friend's comment is very instructive. We imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. And we perceive the world of religion in the image of those institutions that introduce us to spirituality, ritual, and faith. When our rabbis and teachers are distant and cold, when the rites are forbidding and strange, so, too, the religious life we acquire -- emptied of life, emptied of spirit, remote, removed and alien. But, when teachers inspire and ritual becomes poetry, then a different sense of the sacred prevails. The measure of a religious institution is not its magnificent building, the size of its membership roster or the prestige of its reputation, but the kind of God it offers its children.
This week's Torah portion describes the completion of Israel's first religious institution, the mishkan (the Tabernacle). The midrashic rabbis noted the parallels between the Torah's account of the construction of the mishkan and the story of the creation of the world. God creates the cosmos. And God has shared with humanity the power to create. With that power, we create the human institutions that make the cosmos a livable place. Within God's cosmos, there are forces beyond our control. But within the world of human institutions, the world we create, everything is subject to our control. And therefore, we are responsible for how our institutions turn out.
What is a Jewish community? It is the world we would create out of the values of the Jewish tradition. And the quality of our community life is the ultimate test of our values. Beyond all our preaching and teaching, it is the institutions of the Jewish community that demonstrate to our children the meaning of Jewish values and the worth of Jewish commitments. If it is a community that is gentle, compassionate, inclusive and just, we vindicate all our claims about Jewish tradition and our concern for its continuity. But, if the community and its institutions prove to be cold, indifferent, narrow and callous, no amount of preaching or teaching will persuade our children to live Jewish lives.
There is much that separates today. We disagree about war in Iraq; about Israeli policy toward Palestinians; about matters Orthodox, Conservative and Reform; about how to ensure a Jewish future. These are matters of deadly seriousness. But more serious still is how we choose to disagree. For long after these issues have been settled and others arrive to take their place, we will leave behind a legacy -- an example -- of how Jews conduct themselves in controversy. More than what we argue, we teach our children how to argue. Our children are watching and listening. We can show them that Jews can disagree over matters of life-and-death importance, but conduct themselves with civility, respect and control. Or, we can demonstrate the opposite, namely, the weakness of Jewish values when matters of true importance are at stake.
"When Moses finished the work [of constructing the mishkan], the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle." (Exodus 40:33-4)
It is yet possible, promises the Torah, to build human institutions that contain the living Presence of God, institutions that bring light, protection and inspiration to us all.
"For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys." (Exodus 40:38)
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.