When Dorothy and the gang finally arrive in Oz to meet the great wizard, they are shocked and dismayed to find that the booming voice and thunderous effects they experience when speaking to the wizard are all the machinations of a simple man behind a curtain. When the mystery is unveiled, the group is disappointed.
Whereas the “wizard” in the Wizard of Oz implores his audience to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” God’s presence appears miraculously, self-consciously, and by intention before the entire people in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini. This is the only time that the aish, the fire, comes outside of the Mishkan, which is also known as the Tent of Meeting. When the curtain of the tent is drawn back (this is not a detail in our biblical story; I’m employing the curtain as a metaphor) and God’s presence appears, by contrast, the people shout with joy and fall on their faces in awe and reverence and relief. L’havdil, God is no wizard.
Like Sinai before it, this Revelation demonstrates God’s awesome power and presence in the universe. But, unlike the Revelation at Mount Sinai, whose site is unknown and intentionally obscured in our tradition to prevent its idolization, God’s appearance before the people at the Mishkan inaugurated, for the first time, a dependable sense of location and therefore nearness. At Sinai, proximity had been profoundly frightening and uncomfortable. “You speak to us, Moses!” The people implored him to run interference, rather than experiencing the unmediated and terrifying awesomeness of God themselves. The nearness of God’s presence at the Mishkan was far less destabilizing for the people, who had similarly gathered around the entrance to the Mishkan as they had once gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. Of course, Aaron and his sons had already been groomed and set apart to serve as priests for God in this new Mishkan and perhaps that mitigated the ancient Israelites’ concern and right-sized their sense of awe, allowing for true joy when witnessing proof of God’s presence.
As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I’m more interested in the power of the experience of God in our lives than the experience of God’s power in our lives. I’m more curious about how our sense that God’s presence is near or God’s presence is far or God’s presence fills the entire universe affects our individual and collective experiences of the Divine than I am in solving the theological puzzles of immanence and transcendence. I’m more interested in taking steps to increase people’s access to our Jewish wisdom and our Jewish traditions and to their own sense of God than I am in being the right moderator and right mediator of their experience of Judaism. And I am always invested in the hope and the possibility that our Jewish experiences and wisdom will inspire us and others to take positive actions that lead to greater peace, greater equality, and greater holiness in our lives and in our world.
For both the Revelation at Sinai and the Revelation of God’s presence at the Mishkan, it is vitally important that the entire people of Israel is gathered and shares in this experience. This is even as we know that each person received the revelation according to her own strength. Though each of us has our own unique version of it, and therefore voice to bring to a discussion about it, we share a common experience. This common experience fortifies a shared responsibility. In the case of the Revelation at Sinai, we, ancestors of the ancient Israelites, share a responsibility for Jewish wisdom and instruction. In the case of the Revelation at the Mishkan, we come to share a responsibility for maintaining certain aspects of purity and holiness without which God’s presence cannot remain near to us or dwell among us.
One of the most famous parts of Parashat Sh’mini is the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron who took fire and incense in their fire pans and brought a strange or forbidden fire to the altar. In response, a fire came out from God and consumed them. Their sacrifice, Torah teaches, was not God’s command. There are many midrashim and interpretations concerning Nadav and Avihu, but in the context of our Torah portion, it seems likely that here it is a warning about the importance of precise compliance with God’s command. The sections that follow after the death of Nadav and Avihu warn against certain behaviors among the priests (offering sacrifices after drinking alcohol) and reiterates commandments for the priests to follow (eating certain sacrificial foods at the alter and others outside the Mishkan). After these, we find kashrut rules for all of the people to follow to handle and eat foods that maintain purity. In the parshiyot (Torah portions) that follow Sh’mini, we’ll find more and more rules for the people to keep in order to protect ourselves from impurity. Through our extreme care and diligence to avoid the improper and the impure, we make our encampments and our world a place fit for God’s presence.
Torah teachings rarely line up perfectly with the conditions and challenges of this post-modern world. But, for me, the bombing of the airport and the metro in Brussels, Belgium on March 22 can be seen metaphorically as aish zara, forbidden fires and explosives that no matter how sincerely offered are not God’s command and which therefore bring with them an impurity that threatens to drive out God’s presence from this world. If one of the lasting legacies of our Torah teaching around God’s presence is that it requires extreme care and attention to detail in order to maintain, then it makes good sense to me why our ancestors focused on the dozens of daily decision points which could increase or decrease our capacity to sustain holiness in this world. Where else would we begin?
May our Torah learning this week increase our awareness of the good that God’s presence brings to this world. May our eyes, hearts and souls be trained to seek out holiness and root out impurities that have the potential to drive God’s presence from among us. And may we all come to know the priestly blessings which Aaron and Moses offer the people this week in our parashah: May God bless you and keep you. May God make God’s face shine light upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift God’s face to you and grant you Peace. Amen.