This is the text of a talk I gave on September 12th, the first night of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, at the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley.
When Rabbi Diane Elliot asked me to speak on the Minyan’s High Holy Days theme of love and community, I felt so challenged I knew I had to accept. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have been speaking and writing on this topic all year.
For instance, I’ve been working with some colleagues to develop new ways to train artists to work in community. In writing up our ideas, we searched for a powerful way to describe the social aims such artists pursue. We discovered it in the founding statement written in 1960 by Reverend James Lawson for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization. Reverend Lawson said that the “redemptive community” seeks “a social order of justice permeated by love.” This phrase seemed perfect, because justice by itself can be a cold thing, all gevurah, rules and boundaries. It must be tempered by chesed, loving-kindness, in recognition of the imperfection and vulnerability of living beings.
But when we used Lawson’s phrase in a working paper, some of our readers—academics and foundation officers—were discomfited. In our entire working paper, “love” was the single word to which anyone took exception. They were a little sheepish about saying so, but in their workaday worlds the word felt somehow inappropriate.
Naturally, this made me want to say it all the more: love, love, love, love, until the word started to lose all meaning. In fact, the more I spoke about love and quoted what others had to say about it, the more elusive it became. To get back in touch with love, I tried a type of meditation Buddhists call metta, focusing on loving-kindness. I began as advised, by trying to see myself at a moment when I acted with kindness, allowing my heart to be suffused with love for that aspect of myself. I picked a time I’d helped a dear friend who I knew had appreciated my caring. I thought it would be a snap. But as soon as I focused on myself, I began to generate a stream of self-questioning: had I been completely giving? Wasn’t there a moment when I’d gotten distracted? Couldn’t I have done it better? I couldn’t just let go and love myself. In fact, I discovered within myself the same feeling of discomfort and confusion that the word “love” had provoked in the readers of our working paper.
Spiritual community is a beautiful idea. I bet almost everyone in this room is attracted to it, at least to the temporary spiritual community created when we come together during the Days of Awe. We are told in Leviticus 19:18 to love our neighbors as ourselves, which must be the foundational idea behind holy community. I always thought my difficulty in putting this into practice had to do with my neighbors: after all, the hardest thing about community is that you have to do it with other people, right? But my recent experience has suggested that the hardest part might be closer to home: loving myself.
An infinite number of spiritual, psychological and other stories might explain this. I want to talk about just one. I know someone who has been saying that the world offends him. He means that our society seems off-course, with unworthy people exercising social power while many who desire a more just and merciful world despair of affecting things. Like many of us, he works in what they call the helping professions. He sees people with willing hearts and abundant gifts who have acquired the habit of dialing themselves down, accommodating themselves to a diminished world. They stop expressing the fullness of their dreams, bringing their creative power to bear on their communities, or asking people to meet them in a higher and deeper place, because they no longer believe these things are possible. Then they have a lot of trouble loving the shrunken or distorted self that is the residue of their disappointment.
To me, the deepest value of spiritual community is the way it can support us in remembering who we really are, in drawing on our highest and most remarkable selves to regain our power to heal ourselves and the world.
The good news is that we have been given highly detailed instructions on how to practice love and build holy community. We just need to decode them. I am speaking of the Torah portions describing the building of the holy mishkan, the sanctuary our ancestors carried through the wilderness to house their sacrifices and ceremonies, their encounter with the Divine. The instructions occupy the last six chapters of Exodus. They are so detailed that people have easily been able to drawn up charts and illustrations of each component of the Tent of Meeting, the altars, the Ark of the Covenant, the lamps and the many other priestly tools, garments and adornments.
I used to wonder why the plans had to be so exact. Mystical and anthropological meanings have been found in the bells and pomegranates, two of the principal design motifs; in the precise number of woven panels and sockets; and in the choice of colors—scarlet, blue and purple. But now I see the crucial significance of the story in its larger point: that spiritual community doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t come naturally. It has to be carefully, intentionally constructed by people working willingly, bringing whatever gifts they possess, thoughtfully ensuring a place for every offering and taking care that all the pieces fit together in an embodiment of beauty and grace.
Exodus tells us that the people brought even more wool, wood, gold and animal skins than were needed to build the entire mishkan, so Moses had to tell them to stop. Every spiritual community needs material support (and wouldn’t it be great if we provided more than this community needed?). But today our sense of community comes less from the setting and more from the quality of relationship, the atmosphere of welcome, the heightened possibilities that are created whenever people of common purpose gather, regardless of how we adorn our surroundings or ourselves.
It’s all right there in Exodus. Let me share a few examples. The ten curtains that make up the tabernacle are woven of fine linen in blue, purple and scarlet. I see the blue thread, from which the high priest’s garment is also woven, as the pure potential we embody at the beginning of our lives. I once took part in a guided meditation with Rabbi David A. Cooper. When he asked us to see ourselves through the eyes of the Source of Being, I saw myself as an infant, plump and pure. All my striving—the terrible time I typically give myself about not living up to my own standards, all my missing the mark—suddenly became nothing more than the sweet stumbles of a baby. Even my mistakes were lovable because they expressed the will to grow. When we build our mishkan, our holy community, we weave the blue wool by practicing the love that sees ourselves and others through the eyes of God. Weaving the blue wool, we see through the masks and projections, straight to the heart.
Fifty blue loops are attached to the outermost curtains, joined together by gold clasps, making many panels into one. The clasps didn’t just appear: the people brought their earrings and bracelets to be melted down and Bezalel and the other craftspeople patiently poured, cooled, hammered and shaped the molten gold into something that could unite everyone’s efforts and hold fast. I see the clasps as the thoughts and intentions that connect us. To make the clasps, we practice the love that sees the world through two more sets of eyes: our own needs and desires, and the equally holy and important needs and desires of others.
To protect the sanctuary, the tent was encased in three coverings: the first layer was woven of goats’ hair; the outer layer of sealskins; and between them was a covering of rams’ skins dyed red. Think of it: thick curls of wool like cumulus clouds, joined in panels thirty cubits long, all of it the color of ripe berries. I see this red as our passion, our deepest desire for devekut, to connect with the Source of Being and all of life, all the generations in the great chain of souls, the shelshelot neshamot stretching back beyond the exodus and forward until the end of time. To protect holy community, we practice the love of seeing and being seen, receiving and being received as part of the great chain.
Bezalel and the other artisans made the table and ark and their furnishings of acacia, a strong, drought-resistant tree that thrives in the desert, in adversity. They covered the surfaces with beaten gold, then used pure gold to fashion a many-branched candlestick modeled after the almond tree, with a blossom to hold each light. Imagine the flames glittering from every surface, multiplied many times by their reflection in gold. To me, the gold is the holy emanation of seeing ourselves or any other person in full flower, glimpsing what we would be like if all of our capacities bloomed, with no distortion or impediment thwarting any aspect of our growth. Who would you and I be if we refused to tailor ourselves to diminished times or circumstances, if we showed up fully as big, as powerful, as loving and able to receive love as we are capable of being? To make the golden ark, we support each other in withstanding the disappointment that comes when the world fails to meet us, finding the courage to keep showing up anyway, and rejoicing when our true faces are seen, when we are received in all our fullness.
To create the court encasing the altar, Bezalel and the artisans made hundreds of sockets and pins of gold, silver and brass to secure the pillars. I see the pillars, sockets and pins as the people who make up a holy community, some in need and some extending themselves, always changing, yet all necessary to create community. In imagining this meeting of need and generosity, I am inspired by the words of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who wrote in 1952 that, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes in community.” Without the long loneliness—the sockets—the pillars and pins have no meaning; without the solution, practicing love with kindness and generosity, the sockets are useless.
For the priestly robes, craftspeople made bells of pure gold and pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, attaching them all around each hem: a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate. I see these as our offerings of beauty through word and image, music and movement. The food, drink and aesthetic nourishment we provide when we gather in holy community uplift and align our spirits with our highest intentions. We create the bells and pomegranates by practicing the love that clothes our actions in beauty.
I have described only a few elements of the practice of love that went into the building of the holy mishkan; to explore each step would take all night. I’ll mention just one more. Moses finished the tabernacle by setting the furnishings in place and kindling the first fires. Finally, he set a basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, filling it with water so the priests might wash before approaching the holiest places.
Water is the substance most like love, flowing freely into every space that can contain it, joining everything it touches. In water, we observe the transit of energies, as when a pebble dropped into a pond sends concentric rings of motion to intersect beyond the farthest horizon. To me, the water in the basin is a reminder of the deepest purpose of holy community, the reason to hold each other both as pure potential and as full flowering, and support each other in bringing both selves into the present. I believe it is to bring into this world a social order of justice permeated by love, in the words of Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Moses set out the basin on the first day of the first month of the second year of the exodus, a date that scholars still can’t pin down with precision. But since the Jewish calendar has several new years—the official calendar year starts with Nissan, the new year of the trees in Sh’vat—I like to think we’re celebrating the anniversary of this event on the first of Tishrei, beginning tonight, when we add to our count of years. As we approach the Holy of Holies over these ten days of t’shuvah, of self-examination and reorientation, I invite all of us to pause at the entrance to the mishkan, to wash ourselves in the practice of love, to open our hearts to wisdom as did our ancestors, and—whether in our uniqueness each of us is gold, silver, brass, scarlet, blue or purple linen, acacia wood or anointing oil—to offer ourselves for the careful, intentional and collective task of building holy community.