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“The Recesses of One’s Heart,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

March 17, 2023 | 17 Adar 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

The book of Exodus begins and ends with a construction project.  When Exodus opens, the Israelites are slaves under the fateful whip of the taskmasters. None of them serve as designers, engineers, skilled artisans, or architects. They have no will of their own. As the book of Exodus closes, however, the people have agency. No longer slaves, they are moved by their own hearts to act in the service of building a sanctuary that will travel with them through the wilderness. At this point in the narrative, it is God who commanded the building project. The people willingly responded.

The commentators wondered about the sanctuary as a physical representation of where God could dwell. Earlier in Exodus when God commanded Moses, God said, Build me a sanctuary so that I might dwell among them. (8:5) Instead of dwelling in a place, the command focused on the people. The Torah scholar, Nechama Liebowitz cited a 13th century commentator, known by the name of his commentary, Zedek LaDerech, who pointed out that the language of among them is “to teach you that the Divine Presence does not dwell in the sanctuary by virtue of the sanctuary but by virtue of the people Israel ‘for they are the temple of the Eternal.’”

In other words, building the sanctuary has to do with what they construct of themselves.

Malbim, a 19th century commentator in Ukraine took this idea further.  He wrote:

God commanded that each individual should build a sanctuary in the recesses of one’s heart, that one should prepare oneself to be a dwelling place for the Eternal and a stronghold for the excellency of God’s Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of one’s soul to the Divine, until that person gives of themselves for God’s glory at all times.

In other words, we are to become the living embodiment of the sanctuary. Within the recesses of our hearts, we have the capacity to hold and embrace what is sacred and divine. Where does this lead us then?

Jeremiah (7:5-7) provided a possible answer. He chastised the people not to stand by the gate of the Temple and assume they would find God there. Instead, he beseeched the people:

Thus said the ETERNAL of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.  וַאֲשַׁכְּנָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃  Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the ETERNAL, the Temple of the ETERNAL, the Temple of the ETERNAL are these [buildings].”

No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one person and another;if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt—

וְשִׁכַּנְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בַּמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה then only will I let you dwell in this place.

This phrase repeated by Jeremiah could also be read as “I will dwell with you” since the translators made a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. (JPS translation)

As we close the book of Exodus, we are presented with a magnificent possibility. Each of us is the skilled artisan who can open our heart and construct a beautiful dwelling place for the Divine.  Then, our whole being has the power to reflect the light of the Divine in our words, our deeds, and our actions.

Shabbat Shalom.

Originally shared on March 12, 2021

  • Join us at 6:00 p.m. for Qabbalat Shabbat as we welcome Artist-in-Residence Hanoch Piven. Gather with us onsite or online on ZoomFacebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
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  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher