CAUTION- Long post ahead! Here is the sermon from last Weds night. I think it worked!
Erev Rosh Hashana 5774
Building the Mikdash Me’at
Anyone need drywall work done? Last month, we took 2 trips to New York to help rebuild houses that were destroyed by hurricane sandy. We mudded. We sanded. We painted, trimmed, installed insulation. The first house we worked in was owned by a single mom and her 8-year-old daughter, upstairs in a tiny loft space while her downstairs was being rebuilt. Another house was of a 90-year-old woman who was bouncing between relatives while the gutted inside got redone.
At one house, where our volunteers were installing insulation, the homeowner came to Rachael Yourtz. This woman cried as she told Rachael about losing everything and the long road ahead in rebuilding her home. She also cried when she talked about the gratitude she felt.
We didn’t just do an abstract concept of social action. We built houses. But it was more. We helped rebuild people’s lives. Our work was holy work, and our building was of holy places. The walls we were building became a mikdash me’at.
What is a Mikdash Me’at? It’s based on a line in Chapter 11 of the Book of Ezekiel. As the people of Israel languished in their Babylonian exile, the prophet Ezekiel told them that God was a mikdash me’at: a little sanctuary. The “real” mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, had recently been destroyed, and the heart of the lives of the Jewish people had been cut out of them. The holiest place in the world lay in rubble. Ezekiel tells the people that even though God has scattered them among the lands, yet God has been a small sanctuary, a Mikdash me’at, to them.
The Talmud expands the Mikdash me’at to mean synagogues and study halls. This is our Mikdash me’at. Later rabbinic commentary tells us that everywhere can be a mikdash me’at: our homes, our schools, our offices, our very beings. As we left for Long Island, it was with this in mind. We would be creating a mikdash me’at through our hard work, sharing of ourselves with those in need. We would create a mikdash me’at within ourselves, the feeling of doing holy work.
It was not just the doing good that made the experience special. It was that we got to share it with each other, to form bonds with each other. When we got on the Virgin America plane together to return home, it was with the experience that had drawn us all so much closer to each other.
The story is told of a great rabbi who is given the privilege of seeing the realms of Heaven and Hell before his death. He was taken first to Hell, where he was confronted with a huge banquet room in the middle of which was a large elegant table covered with a magnificent and crystal. The table was covered from one end to the other with the most delicious foods that the eyes have ever seen or the mouth tasted. And all around the table people were sitting looking at the food…and wailing. It was such a wail that the rabbi had never heard such a sad sound in his entire life and he asked, “With a luxurious table and the most delicious food, why do these people wail so bitterly?” As he entered the room, he saw the reason for their distress. For although each was confronted with this incredible sight before him, no one was able to eat the food. Each person’s arms were splinted so that the elbows could not bend. They could touch the food but could not eat it. The anguish this caused was the reason for the great wail and despair that the rabbi saw and heard.
He was next shown Heaven, and to his surprise he was confronted by the identical scene witnessed in Hell: The large banquet room, elegant table, lavish settings, and sumptuous foods. And, in addition, once again everyone’s arms were splinted so the elbows could not bend. Here, however, there was no wailing, but rather joy greater than he had ever experienced in his life. For whereas here too the people could not put the food into their own mouths, each picked up the food and fed it to another. They were thus able to enjoy, not only the beautiful scene, the wonderful smells, and the delicious foods, but the joy of sharing and helping one another.
When we got back from the east coast, Eli Melmon, the youngest member of our crew said that he felt good contributing because the amount of people that had been hit and the amount of people helping, was not exactly an even ratio and there need to be more people to even out the ratio. We can’t leave each other behind if we’re to create mikdash me’at. We need to share generously.
Reality is though that sometimes sharing is not possible due to circumstances: a hurricane takes all that we have, we lose a job, unexpected illness taxes our resources. Our neediness takes away our ability to share with one another. But many of us face neediness that goes beyond poverty and resource depletion. It’s the neediness of being overburdened by life, being overwhelmed by tasks. We are needy in a different way.
It’s as if we live a natural disaster that has taken away not our homes or our purchasing power, but our very souls. We may not realize it, but we’ve lost the ability to share because of either circumstances or our own conscious choices. And losing that ability to share hinders our ability to build that Mikdah Me’at, or even tears it down.
When I’m able to make time for Rockin’ Shabbat, for example, I love the music and the story. But I really love the ability to share Shabbat. Think about Avinu Malkeinu or the Neila service. The tunes and liturgy could move us if we were by ourselves, but when we do them together with our community, “Wow!” It’s a peak experience, partly because we share it with each other. When someone brings up Avinu Malkeinu in class, others nod their heads and look with a reverie, understanding exactly the types of feelings of others because they share those feelings. Those who have been to Israel together in this community have a special bond that they share with each other. Shameless plug- we’re going again. There’s still space!
In April we had the amazing experience of neighborhood Shabbat, where so many of you generously opened up your homes. Afterwards, I talked to one person who had been skeptical about going, but afterward let me know how happy he had been to share the experience with others in our community. Sharing each others’ lives is what we’re talking about when we talk about relational Judaism. You’ll hear many more times over the next couple of weeks, and by email, about the Sukkot brunches that we are doing in neighborhoods. Host one of these, or if you can’t, then say yes to sharing in someone else’s Sukkah. It’s because the nature of community is to share.
“I would love to build a sukkah, but….” as you imagine the feelings that are created by family and friends as we share laughter and stories. Ah, the sukkah….. My favorite holiday is Sukkot. It isn’t hard to figure out why. Eating outside, having friends over, visiting other people’s sukkot. Building, decorating. What a blessing. The themes of sukkot: Gratitude, fragility, celebrating bounty, relief that the crops turned out okay. All of these resonate with me.
On a deeper level, what really resonates with me is the conception of the sukkah as a mikdash me’at. We share with each other our bounty, and create deeper relationships together. There is something about building something, or if we can’t build it ourselves, about sitting in a newly constructed space. Whether it’s a home on Long Island, or a sukkah in our yard, the physical space lends itself toward being a MIkdash Me’at, a place where fresh starts are possible, where holiness can reside.
And so you might ask, why talk about Sukkot tonight, on Rosh Hashanah? Well, there’s precedent in Nehemiah 8, where on Rosh Hashana Ezra tells the people to build a sukkah. And for the first time since Joshua leads the people into the land, they do it. Starting today, we build the mikdash me’at for this year: spiritually, on Rosh Hashana, and physically, on Sukkot, where the Sukkah becomes our holy.
I know that this year, as I sit in my Sukkah, and in the Sukkot of friends, I will be thinking of the kitchen in Wantagh with the refrigerator floating in 4 feet of water, and of the signs on houses in East Rockaway that read “uninhabitable”. By constructing a temporary structure, I create empathy with those who lack, and I recognize that it can all blow away one day, in the breath of the wind. I will also think of those who were routed from their homes by the fire on Woodside Road, and know that I and others here will respond to their needs, to help even the ratio between those who were hit, and those who help out. When I share my bounty, it should also be with those in need, to bring cans to Second Harvest, to serve food at Maple Street Shelter.
We are blessed to have elbows that bend. And we are blessed to have arms that want to feed each other. We are blessed to have arms to put around each other. And we are blessed to be able to use those arms to pick up those who need it. We can use those arms to build a sukkah, and yes, to even put in some drywall. May this be a year when each of us construct the Mikdash Me’at, the little sanctuary that is the holiest place in the world. Shana Tova.