Saturday, February 16, 2008

Derashah: Tetzaveh: In the desert, a return to Eden

Derashah - Tetzaveh 5768

A few weeks ago I was watching my favorite news outlet, YouTube, and I saw Senator Obama's now-famous “Yes we can” speech. The Senator delivered an inspiring observation about America’s history, in the process reminding me very much of the history of the Jewish people, and of our parshah in particular. He said, “In the unlikely story that is America, there’s never been anything false about hope.”

I’m not really sure what is unlikely about America’s story, but I know what is unlikely about our Jewish national story - surviving, and not just surviving but thriving, maintaining a culture, and not only maintaining a culture but building a vital society with its own intellectuals and institutions and integration of ethnicities from all over the world, both in Israel and in global Jewry. And in that story, there has never been anything false about hatikvah, about hope.

Which brings me to the parshah of this week and last, and the most unlikely, the most unrealistic, the most arrogant hope in the history of a chutzpah-filled nation: To re-create Gan Eden.

ויטע ה' אלקים גן בעדן מקדם, וישם שם את האדם אשר יצר - HaShem planted a garden in Eden in the east, and He placed there the man He had created. Human beings were meant to live with HaShem there in the Garden, to live lives of spirituality and meaning and a synthesis of physical bodies and heavenly souls.

Human beings were given an עבודה there, a set of tasks. We were told לשמרה, to guard the Garden against corruption. And human beings, according to the midrash, brought korbanos to Gd there in the Garden.

But Adam and Chavah ate from the fruit of the עץ הדעת, the Tree of Knowledge, and then they cowered and listened as HaShem left the garden, and then they were forced to leave the Garden as well. The bond of human and Gd came to an abrupt halt.

Still, through the ensuing generations, that dream of Gan Eden never perished. Chanoch walked with Gd. Noach found favor in the eyes of Gd. Avraham arrived in Canaan and built a mizbeiach, Sarah offered up her position as matriarch, and their son Yitzchak offered himself as a korban. Rivkah, Rachel and Leah abandoned their families to come live in a tent dedicated to Gd. Yaakov slept in Beit El and dreamed of a place where angels would descend to this plane and ascend from this plane.

But they were not ready - for they were past the time when individuals could truly walk with Gd, and they were waiting for the time which HaShem had foretold in Parshat Lech Lecha, a time when the descendants of Avraham and Sarah would return to Eden as a nation, ושמרו דרך ה', when they would walk the path of HaShem and return to the Gan.

To return to the Gan means to live a life of שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, of placing HaShem before our eyes, visible in our minds and evident in our actions.

To return to the Gan means to live a life of avodah and shemirah, focusing not on the purchase that will bring self-satisfaction and the overtime that will bring economic growth, but on the gift that will strengthen society and the Torah that will bring Jewish growth.

To return to the Gan means to live as though we were already there, with an intense religiosity that leaves little room for hesitation, that demands total fealty and bestows total blessing.

A most unlikely hope.

But, finally, after twenty-six generations from Adam and Chavah, we were blessed with the opportunity to return to the Gan. Again, we had a place with an avodah, a way to serve Gd. A place to protect from corruption, לשמרה, as we read this morning in the responsibility of the Kohanim to protect the mishkan. Again, we had a place with korbanos. The new Eden was the Mishkan.

Many of the Mishkan’s icons echo the themes of our original exile from the garden, highlighting the fact that we weren’t really yet back in Eden:
· When we left Eden, Gd gave us special garments - and now Gd gave the Kohanim special garments.
· When we left Eden, the Eitz haChaim and Eitz haDaas, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, were marked off-limits - and now, the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, containing the life and knowledge of the Luchos, was marked off-limits.
· And when we left Eden HaShem placed Kruvim at the entrance, to guard the path - and HaShem told Moshe to place Kruvim upon the Aron in the Kodesh Kodashim, the place from which HaShem’s voice emanated to communicate to the nation.
We were not entirely back in the garden, no - but we were on our way.

This was a most unlikely hope, a most daring mission, to recreate Eden among ourselves. Surely those Jews who heard Moshe’s instructions wondered: Is he serious? Can we really return? Can we again live together with HaShem?
To which HaShem replied forcefully, last week and again this week:
· ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Make a Mikdash for Me, and I will live among them.
· ושכנתי בתוך בני ישראל, I will dwell among the Jewish people.
· וידעו כי אני ה' אלקיכם, They will know that I am HaShem, your Gd.
Rav Soloveitchik taught that the Kruvim with their shining swords who stood at the entrance to Gan Eden were not there to keep people out; rather, they were there, as the Targum Yerushalmi says, לשמור את דרך עץ החיים, to guard the path to the Tree of Life, to keep that path open for our return. HaShem waits for our return - and in the mishkan, we returned.

Fast-forward a few millenia, and here we are, without Mishkan and without Beis haMikdash. And yet, the Torah’s answer is still, “Yes, we can.” Not in that national forum, not yet, but on a personal level, in our מקדש מעט, in our shuls and in our batei medrash and our homes.
We can still live that life with Gd which emphasizes spiritual in tandem with material, which is filled with עבודה and שמירה and offerings to Gd:
· By assuring our children a powerful Jewish education which will bring them to avodah and shemirah.
· By emphasizing our walk with Gd in our marriages and our family bonds, through the halachos of taharas hamishpachah/family purity and through the shared activity of Shabbos and Kashrus and Talmud Torah.
· By giving of ourselves, bringing our own version of korbanos, through chesed and tzedakah.

This is the dream with which we inaugurate every Jewish home, under the chuppah, when we recite berachot recalling Gan Eden and the joy of that experience. Every new Jewish home is a chance to return to Eden, to rebuild that Divine connection, to live with HaShem.
We remember the Jewish version of Senator Obama’s message: In the unlikely story that is Jewish history, there has never been anything false about hope - and particularly the hope of ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, They will make for Me a mikdash, and I will live among them.

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