There’s a strange scene in the middle of the desert
See, according to the rabbis we get everything we need in the wilderness -- Famously, manna, a food that tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like
Fell from the sky so that we were never hungry --
Okay, so maybe we didn’t have it all figured out in the desert
Maybe we didn’t have a lot to our name, just sandals, a walking stick
But at least, with God’s help, we had the basics
This is why it is so strange that when we get to the moment
A few chapters ago
When God asks us to build a holy meeting place
The location of holiness
And God tells us that the key part of this holy meeting place
Is a cedar slab that is 32 cubits long, which is about 48 feet give or take
The center beam of the holy place
Not something you could slip in your pocket
Or even strap to the top of a station wagon
A giant wooden beam that is longer than this room, I think
It is astounding, a miracle
That although this beam was never mentioned before in Torah
No accounting of it when we left Egypt
We don’t go a find a tree or several trees to somehow fashion it
And we don’t pray or panic for one
Because somehow that beam was already with us, it was found on us
(v’chol asher nimtza ito eitzei shittim! / and everyone for whom it was found with them, the cedar trees, Ex. 35:24)
It was “found,” not, “we went to find.”
Somehow, in one of a series of miracles
We already had what we needed.
Maybe this is the first lesson we can apply to our parasha, Kedoshim
A parasha that asks us to make a world of holy places through our actions
Perhaps this is the first lesson
No matter what is asked of us for the sake of building holiness
No matter how impossible it may seem
We will have what we need.
I need to back up
Because you know the rabbis well enough to know
That just like they do not miss the verb tense (v’chol asher nimtza ito / and everyone for whom it was found with them Ex. 35:24)
They are also not satisfied with the idea that this giant piece of lumber is just, you know, lying around, or that it appeared out of nowhere.
And so they teach that when in Torah, when Abraham aveinu
Abraham our great great great great grandfather plants a tamarisk in Be’er Sheva, way back in Genesis,
he was actually preparing for this moment in the wilderness, and had actually planted a cedar for this very beam.
And they teach that, when generations later, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, hears that his beloved son Joseph is still alive – and strangely, rather than running to Egypt to claim his estranged son
Instead, in Torah Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva to pray
The rabbis say that Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva because Jacob has a master plan, he is going to harvest those same cedar trees, knowing God will ask his descendents for a beam from them one day.
That’s why he detours to be’er sheva!
Jacob tells his children, “Someday, long after we leave Egypt, God is gonna say to you, ‘Make a holy place where I can meet with you.’ And when that day comes, You better have everything you need right in your hands! So take this! Because you had best be ready.” (See Shmot Rabbah 33:8)
I can only imagine the looks on the faces of Jacob’s sons
Already insecure about their past, understandably
I can only imagine their lack of enthusiasm in taking along the most conspicuous, 32 cubit plank into their new lives in response to the possibility of a future vague request from a God they barely know at a time yet to be determined
I imagine their strained responses
As they consider storage costs in Egypt
The upper body strength that will be required
And try to imagine what this giant plank will do to their hopes that they would somehow blend in.
For anyone who has had a parent who told them to wear something or take something that they did not want to wear or take to school, to camp, to college, to a new home
Let your mind linger on the 48 foot cedar beam that Jacob insisted they carry.
Sometimes we have these unwieldy things, traits, traditions, dispositions, ideas, emotions
We get them from our parents
Or our grandparents
They are giant, practically beyond description
Maybe we know why we have them, maybe no one told us
Maybe we know why we are supposed to have them but have not figured out why that matters or what to do with them
Or maybe we don’t even know where we got them
We don’t remember anyone giving them to us
And at first glance, these giant, unwieldy features don’t seem to do us much good
They stick out, they are embarrassing
They are the equivalent of the seemingly useless 32 cubit cedar planks we carry around
We feel like Jacob’s sons --
But while we consider this, let us also think of Abraham and Jacob
Who were completely unintimidated by their present circumstances
And so sure of the inevitability of holiness manifesting in the world
That they invest aggressively, and outlandishly in the future
Paying no mind to appearances
Imagining only the “grand commission,” the holy meeting place that would surely, without a doubt, someday be built
Consider Abraham and Jacob who do all they can to make sure we will be ready, “Have what you need at hand!”
It might give parents in the room some small comfort to know
That even the most careful and emphatic plans of the patriarchs themselves are not foul proof (Shmot Rabba 33:8)
The tradition says that when the time came
And God asked us for the materials for the holy meeting place
Just like Jacob had said would happen,
“The plank! It’s time!”
Some of us had made all kinds of arrangements
And others of us…. forgot.
Somewhere the message got lost
And just had to give whatever we found on us
[Could you work with a “Pony tail holder?” “I have some gum?”]
And still, it turns out
That, ready or not, everyone still miraculously had what was required,
Everyone had something “found” on them, something to give
See, the seeds of those cedars had been planted long before
Cut down, passed from generation to generation
And all this happened without our knowledge or permission
So that whether we knew we had it or not, whether we were ready or not
When the time came,
There was nothing we had to go and find, it was found on us.
Finally, as the beam is put into place
The rabbis say something wonderful and alternative universe-y and certainly midrashic happened:
I imagine it was like when two wires create an electrical circuit
And there is a hum
Or maybe it is like when two people meet, people who are besheret (destined) in some way and they cannot stop crying for joy at your shabbat table or under the chuppah
Not that I am talking about anyone in this room (!)
No matter, sometimes, things or people come into just the right place and everyone feels it, it is undeniable
And so the rabbis say just this, and they describe it this way
that the center beam, when it was finally in its place, that it sang.
Az yeranenu kol azei ya’ar lifnei adonai/ all the trees will sing with joy before God / Ps. 96:12
From our kabbalat Shabbat
And the rabbis say this psalm is describing the moment when the cedar beams, in their place, sang out.
Sometimes components can make up an entirely different category of whole
They transcend their parts, we transcend ourselves
Maybe this kind of transcendence is what God means by holiness, this is what parashat Kedoshim wants us to have
This is why we are asked to consider the whole in our smallest of actions
So we could have the experience of being part of a greater whole
But, with all this talk of transcendence, we must take care.
Because if holiness were a matter of transcendence only, our parasha would be a lot shorter. We could hang onto the part about keeping Shabbat,
and skip the parts about sharing the corners of our fields
(or our bonuses or stock options)
We could skip the parts about not placing stumbling blocks before the blind
(and not consider how we use access to information to undermine those who are “kept in the dark”).
See, if we are considering our parasha, it is clearly incomplete to talk about holiness as if it were another dimension, a world apart from the way we are in society and with each other.
See, sometimes holiness is about beams, runners, connectors, going from here to there. (Exodus 26:28)
And sometimes holiness is about enough of us standing still, standing upright, so that the very roof of a society can hold, so there can be space for the many.
So the midwives, you remember
After King Pharaoh makes his paranoid decree to drown all the baby boys in the Nile
They quietly refuse
Because they have yirat hashem / a fear of God, meaning they fear the kind of world where it is possible that midwives would throw babies in the river Nile
Because they understand: Standing up for these babies, this is a great deal of what it means to be holy.
There is no speech, there is no, “Let my people live.”
(Even while society reels back and forth) They just stand in place, they just keep doing what they had always done and so, ensure that babies can still live
And God rewards them, it says in Torah,
God “made them houses”
We are not sure what it means
But in midrash it says that because God saw the midwives were tzaddikim, righteous, prophets
God hid them
God hid the midwives by turning them into the upright columns of the houses. God hid them in the standing architecture of the houses
God “made them houses” means --
They would never have to face Pharaoh or his soldiers again, true
But more than this, God wanted to honor the midwives who had already become pillars of society
The kind of still and upright pillars that guarantee shelter for everyone else.
The midwives became the houses.
(Midrash HaGadol Shmot 1:21, Rosen source)
Sometimes we carry the beams, sometimes are the beams.
Sometimes we support the pillars, sometimes we must summon the courage to be the pillars.
In the case of the 32 cubit beam that was carried for generation after generation
Sometimes treasured, sometimes resented, sometimes forgotten altogether
As far as I know, it’s still around here somewhere
And as for the pillars, let’s just say, I’ve met them, some are hiding in this room, in plain sight.
So, Minna, it almost goes without saying
There are times the building process is obvious, we know where the piece goes
We know where we go
But other times we have to re-imagine the edges, and we never know if we are right
Sometimes we wait for years to be asked and no request comes
Sometimes we get more requests than we think it is possible for us to ever hold
There are no guarantees
But if you accept your role in this commission
The only thing I can promise you
Is that you might earn the opportunity to get a glimpse or two of the grand architect’s plans
And you and I -- we might earn the honor of listening for the voice of one of our oldest relatives speaking to us through the text:
“Be ready,” whispers Jacob. “I know this looks like a lot. I admit it’s unwieldy. But, trust me, someday, you or who knows, your children, they will need all this, someday we will be asked again. Just promise me you’ll remember: You already have everything you need.”