In her song, February, the musical artist, Dar Williams captures this moment in time well, I think. She sings: “And February was so long that it lasted into March.” Right? Besides the fact that we have an extra day of February this year—happy birthday too all our leap babies, of course—February can seem like the longest shortest month. It’s cold, it can be dreary day after day. It teases us with some beautiful crisp days here and there, but then resorts to its old antics of gray skies and frigid windy mornings.
And this year, I want to suggest that February has brought with it a new challenge. You cannot watch the news or stroll around social media without being bombarded by the coronavirus. So yes, we’re gonna talk about that a little bit tonight. Because February has offered us the challenge of patiently waiting for the unknown. And that can feel hard and it can feel scary and it surely does make us ache for the new birth and new growth of March in an even more pressing way.
When we read about this coronavirus, or Covid-19, it’s usually accompanied by ominous words like: pandemic, fatality rates, “not if, but when,” and quarantine. Who invited this into our February? But here we are. And this new sickness is being accompanied by some disturbing base human instincts. We’ve learned of a gentleman who bought up all the masks in his city in order to sell them at exorbitant rates in China, making money off of others’ pain and fear.
Racism against Asian people is climbing as we watch video of people being harassed and harangued, Chinese restaurants are reporting drastic declines in business, and cruel anti-Asian stereotypes are creeping into every-day language. It is dangerous and destructive. Fear often does not bring out our best side.
So what does our tradition have to say about all this? Anything? Any wisdom that we can cull to help us navigate this unexpected extended February of a moment? Of course—what a weird to question to ask if the answer was going to be no.
In parshat Terumah, we encounter the first of many chapters in which we are instructed to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, or Tabernacle, that we carry with us on our journey through the wilderness for 40 years. Inside the mishkan, we place the tablets that we receive on Mount Sinai. And in the opening description of what this thing will be, God tells Moses to tell the people: v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham. Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.
Now we’d probably expect for this to say: build me a sanctuary—and I will dwell in it. As if God were telling us—make me something beautiful, something worthy of my presence, and I will live in it as my divine house. But that is not at all what the text says. It says: build me a sanctuary, a sacred place, and I will dwell among “them”…among you, amidst the people.
What does this mean? Lots of commentators ask that question. It could mean that if we build a physical structure, it gives God a conduit for bringing God’s essence to earth. It could mean build me a fabulous sanctuary to show me that you are serious about having godiness in your midst, so I know I am welcome there.
But I think God’s words here are tied not to the WHAT, but to the HOW. How we are instructed to build this mishkan makes all the difference. You may remember that we are told to build it together. That each person who has resources, should bring their resources and share them – gold, silver, goat’s hair, dolphin skin, crimson thread, and so on. That each person who is skilled as a builder, should come and build. That each person talented in some way, should contribute their talents to this structure. That in constructing this mishkan, we show up with what we have, we show up for one another, we show up ready to do something together that no one of us could do on our own.
Build me a mishkan, God says, in THIS way—with compassion and kindness and collaboration, and that will make it possible for God’s presence to dwell among the people. Or even, acting in deep community like that IS God’s presence in the midst of the people.
This is the opposite of that base human instinct to shore up what we alone have, demonize others, and protect only ourselves. This way of being permits godiness to saturate a people, even when that people is anxious or confused or afraid.
This is the community—the mishkan-building community—that we will be for one another as we learn more about this coronavirus and how it might affect us. We will choose calm and collaboration and caring for one another over fear or panic or isolation.
So the CDC is saying COVID-19 will come to the United States. AND they are saying this is not cause to panic. But there are things we can do in a mishkanic way to make one another safer. As in the building of the mishkan, we will be a community that shares information, that shares our resources and talents. That takes care of one another. The CDC is instructing people to prepare for potentially needing to be in your home for between 1-3 weeks. This is not a call for us to be doomsday preppers, but rather to be smart and prepared to keep one another safe.
To protect one another, we may move from shaking hands to a greeting of putting our hands on our own hearts, from hugging to waving. From cutting challah to pre-sliced challah, just as in the days of the mishkan, when it is well known that they pre-sliced their store bought challah.
You get the idea. We’ll be a community to one another and to our neighbors. We’ll count on each other.
And if you are thinking: nah, I don’t need to prepare—this is silly, I want to offer these words from this week in Scientific American: The author writes: “…you should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.” It sounds like the building of the mishkan, no? We all contribute for the benefit of one another, especially those who are most vulnerable. We. Take. Care. Of. One. Another. Because we are better together. And that elevates our community into a place of holiness. And it lets God or some greater presence dwell among us. It helps us fight our instincts toward fear or panic or insularity. It’s who Union Temple is, and it is who we will be as this unfolds.
If there were a Talmudic rabbi who taught: “don’t worry about facemasks, wash your hands vigorously with soap for at least 20 seconds,” that’s who I would quote now, but instead, I’ll offer this:
A Chasidic teacher, the Or Ha’me’ir looks at this verse in parshat Terumah, “Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you,” and explains: “We are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for the divine.”
By our actions and choices, may we create sanctuaries in our own hearts, mishkans that have room for one another, so that in our dwelling together, in lending one another our own loving presence, in showing up for one another, God may also dwell among us. And in doing so, may this unconscionably long February fade into a hopeful and joyful and collaborative, healthy March. Amen.