Each of us has a characteristic disappointment, something that strikes in a very deep and very old place. Mine is regression. Whether between two people or two nations, nothing sends me into despair more quickly than believing genuine progress has been made, then seeing things snap back into their original distorted shape.
Say my friend has trouble trusting because his trust was abused in childhood, so we work together to create experiences of trust grounded in reality. Then something disturbing happens, and reacting out of old habit, forgetting our corrective experiences — overwhelmed by brain chemicals shouting “Fight or Flight!” — my friend shuts down like a sea anemone that’s been poked with a stick: regression. Say the Israelis and the Palestinians take tentative, halting steps toward peace, hoping against hope. Then something disturbing happens, and reacting out of old habit, forgetting to hope, they turn on each other, limbic brains flooded: regression.
When this happens, I feel as if the air has been let out of the room. My own hopes collapse in on themselves, and it seems as if all progress is illusory. Often this makes me want to run away: Get me out of here! That’s my regression.
One Saturday a month, we get together with friends for dinner. We start with Havdalah, the Jewish ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of ordinary time. Then, while we eat and drink, our conversation is suggested by the Torah portion for the week just then beginning. I love this kind of talk, spinning ancient themes into glittering threads, twining them through the hopes and concerns of the day.
This week was a challenge, though. If you read it for surface, literal meaning, the Torah portion — Va-Yakhel, Exodus 35:1-38:20 — is about as exciting as a shopping list. In great detail, it describes the materials, proportions and decorations to be used in constructing the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, the altar, all the elements and accoutrements of the portable sanctuary the ancient Israelites used on their tangled journey through the wilderness. Perhaps 95 percent of the text reads like this:
“The length of each cloth was twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each cloth was four cubits, all cloths having the same measurements. They joined five of the cloths to one another, and they joined the other five cloths to one another. They made loops of blue wool on the edge of the outermost cloth of the one set, and did the same on the edge of the outermost cloth of the other set…”
Nevertheless, resonant overarching themes may be drawn from the text, such as the notion that sacred space is not a haphazard matter, that it takes minute attention to detail to construct the container for holiness. There are great tidbits to be pulled out of the text for examination and embellishment. There was a wonderful moment at Saturday’s dinner when one friend asked us to imagine ourselves in the place of Moses as the artisans told him, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” The text goes on to say that “Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!'”
Everyone who had raised funds for a nonprofit organization, a campaign, or a spiritual community (which is to say everyone around the table) sighed deeply as we imagined how it would feel to hear such words: “Thanks for all you have given. Please stop now, we have more than enough.” Pretty dreamy, hm?
But sometimes it seems effortful and recherche to try and spin a tapestry from a few wisps of words or even letters, as the most learned scholars do, often brilliantly. That’s why I was so grateful to come on a larger point of interpretation offered by the late Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank (his Meta-Parshiot, a compilation of far-out and sometimes dazzling Torah commentaries, can be purchased from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal).
Reb David wrote that one key meaning may be found not so much in the words of Va-Yakhel as in its location in the sequence of the overall Torah story, which is right after Moses goes up the mountain and the Israelites, terrified in his absence, construct an idol to comfort themselves. This is a tremendous regression, from connection with the ineffable to worshipping their own creations. Reb David writes that this shows that “inner evolutionary force can recoup after a regression,” even “after a disappointment of the caliber of the golden calf….The reversion to a more primitive status is only temporary.”
In this interpretation, the text takes such microscopic care to prescribe precise materials and procedures for restoring and preserving sanctity because it carries a coded message about the nature of authentic redemption. We can come back from a regression, it says, even a really huge regression. We can make real progress in the period immediately following our big disappointment. But it’s not a simple matter of shrugging it off. The steps we take to heal our regression must be purposeful, well-crafted and abundant. In energy, intention and effort, we need to bring “more than is needed for the tasks entailed.” And we need to keep it up until a voice we can trust says “no further effort is needed.”
The forces of regression are persistent. Sometimes there’s not all that much to be learned from our backsliding. Most times I stumble and fall are much like all the others: my button got pushed, I was elicited. For the “inner evolutionary force,” the deepest meaning is in the sequence of regression and redemption, in how we make our way back from disappointment. In that question I always want answered: What now?