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Beha'alotcha 5783             June 10, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

The Torah spends a great deal of time talking about the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites constructed in the desert after their encounter with God at Mt. Sinai. Way back at the end of Shemot/Exodus, they built the Mishkan and Moses assembled the parts of the tent in the middle of the camp. For the entire book of Leviticus, we find the “instruction manual” for the Mishkan, who will officiate in the tent, what will the service to God look like, what are the rules for those who officiate and for those who worship in the courtyard to the tent. It also speaks about how the different furniture items are to be used and how the service will all fit together.

Now we are well into the book of Bemidbar/Numbers, and we are still learning about the Mishkan. We have learned how it is to be dismantled when the people march toward the Promised Land, and how it is to be reassembled when they set up a new camp. Where will the different tribes encamp in relationship to the Mishkan? Who is responsible for transporting the different parts during the march? What is the purpose of the Levites as assistants to the priests? And then, the Mishkan is dedicated, and each tribal leader brings a series of gifts to the Mishkan including wagons to help transport the heavier items. Finally, in today’s Parsha, Aaron is told to light the lamp and the Mishkan is ready for its daily sacrifices.

One of the things we know about the Mishkan was that the people were excited to build it. They donated a significant amount of gold and silver to build it, so much gold and silver that for the first and only time in Jewish history, Moses had to tell the people that he had enough and to stop giving! The building of the Mishkan was a seminal moment in the history of our people and it is clear, from the extended story of its construction, that the Mishkan was the vital center of Israelite worship.

This tent of worship sustained our people for hundreds of years, until the time of King David. After the conquest of Jerusalem, David established the city as his capital and built his palace there. He brought the Mishkan to the city and set it up on Mt. Moriah with great celebrations. He wanted to build a permanent building to replace the tent, but God would not let him construct a Temple. It was left to Solomon to build the first Temple to God. It too was built with great fanfare and the dedication of that building took a full week of sacrifices followed by the Festival of Sukkot as the first holiday to be observed in the new building. Only after two weeks of ceremonies, did King Solomon let the people go home. That Temple too stood for hundreds of years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians.

In our Haftarah for today, we have the prophet Zachariah speaking to the people about building a second Temple. The Persian Empire had crushed Babylonia and the Jews were allowed to return to their land and reestablish the worship of God in Jerusalem. But the rebuilding of the Second Temple was not like the Mishkan or the First Temple. There was no enthusiasm for this project. The work proceeded slowly and sometimes it stopped altogether. The joy and celebrations of the past were not present among the exiles who had returned.

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, a teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva wrote this week about the Second Temple. She writes, Why were the people not rushing to build? After all, they were given permission by Cyrus to return to Judah to build a house for God. An examination of The books of Haggai and Ezra suggests that the people feared failure. 

The reality was harsh. The economic situation for large parts of the people involved was difficult, apparently exasperated by a drought. All this deepened a sense that unlike the Exodus from Egypt, this return to the land was no time of glory and miracles. This did not match their concept of redemption, and they were hesitant: perhaps they should not be building God’s house because God is not there, He is not dwelling among them.”

The people hesitated to rebuild the Temple because they did not believe that God was with them in this endeavor. Because of their sins, the First Temple was destroyed and now they did not know if God would forgive them, if God would once again dwell among them. Without God’s presence in the Temple all their work would be in vain. This is what Zachariah found when he came to Jerusalem and our Haftarah records his vision of what the future could be like.

I have to admit that the dreams of Zechariah were so strange that even the prophet himself could not understand their meaning. Zechariah had to ask the angel in his dream what his vision of the Menorah, the lamp that shined all night in the Temple, was supposed to mean. The answer from the angel was cryptic, “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”

Many commentators have written about this vision and its cryptic response. My friend Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein calls our attention to one modern commentator in how he understands this ancient vision. He writes, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (offers) this perspective: The menorah, symbol of the Jewish collective, restored to its place in the sanctuary ... [indicates that] the Jewish people's historical fortune will begin to rise again… But Zechariah does not understand the vision. He knows that, politically, Israel is still enslaved… They are poor and surrounded by enemies. The menorah of political destiny is far from shining… [The menorah represents] a new sort of bravery, of self-worth, a new feeling of pride and importance that will not express itself in the political-military domain, the realm of the profane, as much as in the religious-spiritual plane, the realm of the sacred. If this bravery exists, political freedom will develop as a consequence." (Days of Deliverance, pp. 139-140)”

Our Parsha records that the final act of the dedication of the Mishkan was the lighting of the Menorah. Zechariah is inspiring and motivating the people to finish the work on the Temple and only when it is done, when the new Menorah will be lit, will they understand the real meaning of worship and faith in God. Faith does not depend on a government or an army. No matter what their situation might be, God will be with them. When they see the Menorah lit once more by the High Priest, they will understand that spiritual freedom comes before political freedom. Once they show their faith in God by completing their work, then God will bless them with the national freedom they crave.

What all of this points to, the Parsha, and the Haftarah, is that we often look at our spiritual work backwards. We think that when God is with us there is nothing that we cannot do. That with God’s help, miracles can happen, and faith can be strong. Zechariah is telling us that the truth is just the opposite. First, we have to do the work, we need to have the faith, we need to be dedicated in our spiritual work and only then will we experience the presence of God in our life.

I get asked all the time why there are no miracles today as there were in ancient times. Why don’t we see the sea splitting anymore? Why don’t we hear the voice of God from the mountain top? Why don’t we feel God’s presence in our life like prophets of old? In ancient days our ancestors experienced slavery, exile, and political conquest. They needed to overcome their obstacles to arrive at their faith in God.

In our days, we see the State of Israel, flaws and all, as the great miracle of our time. But it was not handed to us by God. Natan Altman, the poet, wrote these words after Israel’s war of Independence. It is called, “The Silver Platter”:

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a young man and a young woman and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their heads

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: "Who are you?"

And they will answer quietly, "We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given."

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel.

In our times, we too must be the miracle that will change the world. We are the ones who have to do the work to make our lives better, to make our community better, to make our country better, and to make our homeland better. It is not handed to us by God on a silver platter. Our miracles, like those of old, come from hard work, faith, and inspiration. If we are unhappy with the news we read and hear every evening, we are the ones who must go out and make some meaningful change. If we don’t like the politics of this country or in Israel, we need to make political change happen. If we don’t like the environment in which we live, we have to go out and make environmental change happen.

How can one person make a difference? How can I ever hope to make the changes needed in our world happen? Look to Aaron in our Parsha and Zechariah in our Haftara; it only takes one person to light the menorah. It only takes one person to light the first light so that the light can spread out to push back the darkness. Faith does not depend on government or an army. The flame of faith burns in our hearts, and we can share that flame to inspire others without diminishing our own light. “It is not by might and not by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”

The spirit of God is within us. Once we set it free, then will our visions for a better life come alive. May God give us the courage and the strength to make real change happen in our world. The rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784