Our mishkanic congregation: Rabbi Ora’s dvar at her Installation

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Shabbat Shalom.

Those of you who were at the membership meeting two weeks ago may remember that Greg, in his role as outgoing treasurer, shared his opinion that our congregation is better off financially for not having our own building, and that we should never actually build our own synagogue.

The saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. That’s certainly true in our community, and of course we could debate the merits of us having or not having our own building. But I don’t bring this up to open up that conversation today, or to challenge Greg’s opinion. I bring it up because Greg’s remarks, to me, were an invitation to consider what it means to be a congregation – literally, a place where people congregate – without a synagogue?

What is a congregation without a permanent physical home?

As I reflected, I realized that this question – sparked by one member of this community – had already been answered by another member. Two months ago, when we gathered in October to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, Marcy called our congregation ‘mishkanic’ – that is, modeled on the mishkan, the biblical portable resting-place for God.

And that’s what I wanted to explore with you today. Beyond simply being without a physical home, what might that mean, to be a mishkanic congregation?

First,we should go back to the source. What was the mishkan?

The mishkan was a portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert for 40 years. Practically speaking, the mishkan was a large tent. It was made from gold-plated acacia wood and various curtains and tapestries. The mishkan housed a menorah, an altar for sacrifices, and, inside the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, an ark containing the two sets of tablets of the ten commandments, both the broken and the intact, and a space between two golden cherubim where the spirit of God would rest.

The mishkan was built to travel. There were six special wagons used to transport it. Each time the Israelites moved en masse, the ark would be carefully dismantled, and then reassembled at each new camp site. And you thought camping on Memorial Day weekend was logistically challenging.

So the mishkan is a portable sanctuary, a place for holiness to travel alongside our ancestors. How did it come to exist?

In Exodus Chapter 25, parshat Terumah, God lays out the plan for constructing the mishkan. God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me an offering; of every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” The Israelites are invited to contribute previous metals, fine cloths, and furs to construct the walls of the mishkan. Not only are these donations not compulsory, but they are acceptable to and accepted by God only when the donation is rooted in a generosity of heart.

The mishkan was built purely through volunteer effort. It was constructed out of love, of materials freely and willingly given.

And our mishkanic congregation? It also came together out of volunteer energy. AARC began as a havurah, a group of dear ones who came together to pray and learn and celebrate holy moments. And as this community has transitioned from a havurah to a congregation, we still rely on, we’re still rooted, in a generosity of heart that means ongoing investment of time and energy and care from members. And, like with the mishkan, our many sacred objects came from the hands of our incredible artists and artisans. Our Torah table, aron, ner tamid, Torah cover, decorative tapestries, yad – these are all objects of beauty that exemplify Hiddur Mitzvah, commandment to further beautify the sacred.

The mishkan was a sacred space that housed beautiful objects. And the mishkan was made to be portable. And anyone who’s ever helped with set up for services – anyone who’s wheeled the siddur cart from our storage closet, or helped transport our sacred objects to the Unitarian Universalist Church for High Holy Days – can attest to our portability, and the effort that comes with being portable. But being portable also means being able to be flexible to meet the needs of an evolving community. Being portable means lighting Chanukah candles in different members’ homes every night of the holiday; celebrating Passover seders in each other’s homes; building and sleeping in a sukkah on a member’s farm.

And being portable means not just that our things can be moved, but that we, too, are open to movement, to change. Throughout the life of this congregation thus far, there have been new worship spaces, new forms of leadership, both rabbinic and lay, a new name, new members, new collaborators within the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community. As a mishkanic congregation we don’t have to be rigid; we can be not just open to growth, but to hold it as a Jewish and a Reconstructionist value.

When God first spoke to Moses about the construction of the miskhan, God said: ‘Va’asuli mikdash veshachanti betocham.’ ‘Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.’ When I’ve spoken about this verse in the past, I’ve pointed out how ‘betocham’ is grammatically odd here. It’s commonly translated as the singular, sanctuary, but actually is plural. If we look at the text, we see that God isn’t saying, ‘Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in that sanctuary.’ God says, ‘Make me a sanctuary – and through your actions, by building this portable holy place, out of love, with a commitment to beauty and growth, I will come to dwell among you, within each of you.’

The physical mishkan takes a back seat to the act of building it. It’s the action undertaken, the creation itself that opens up the hearts of the Israelites to be a dwelling place for God.

This pasuk/verse is revolutionary. It takes holiness out of the context of space and even time and locates it in relationship. Holiness – the indwelling of God – becomes the outcome of a commitment to growth, to openness, and to being in relationship with one another.

If we are, as Marcy suggested, and I agree, mishkanic, then as a community we are the place where holiness resides. We, coming together, figuring out how to be a large, messy, loving family, create a space for God to come in.

I want to acknowledge what a blessing it’s been for me to enter into and be a part of this holy community this past year and a half – a community that is committed to growth, to openness, to flexibility, to relationships, to justice, to learning, and to beauty. I feel lucky to have been so joyfully and completely welcomed throughout the past 1.5 years and today. And thank you for embarking on this relationship of trust with me. Thank you for you trusting me to be your rabbi.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge that the Torah that I referenced this morning is not from Vayigash, from this week’s Torah portion – it’s not even from the book that we’re currently in! The building of the mishkan takes place in Exodus, rather than towards the end of Genesis. But, because everything in the Torah is connected: In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Jacob traveling down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph and to settle there. And in a midrash on this parsha, from Midrash Tanchuma, we learn that Jacob, as he prepared for his journey, collected seeds of the acacia tree in Canaan. And when he arrived in Egypt, he planted them there, and told his children and grandchildren that hundreds of years in the future, after their descendants had been enslaved and liberated, they would need the wood from these acacia trees to construct a mishkan in the desert.

So my simple blessing for this community, at this moment in our congregation’s history, looking to the past, dwelling in the present, and looking towards the future: May we remember and celebrate the many moments of holy community that have led to the present. May we continue to create a resting place for each other and for holiness to enter. And, like our forefather Jacob, may we be visionaries of the future: may our actions, our learning, and our commitment to community plant seeds of holiness for generations to come.

Amen.