Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
February 20, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
When I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, I could do the splits. I remember telling a couple neighbourhood girls about it. They didn’t believe me. My sister vouched for me but they wanted to see for themselves. I don’t know whether the girls didn’t believe me and wanted to see proof or whether they did believe me and thought it would be impressive to watch. Anyhow, I was only too happy to defy their minimal expectations or to fulfill their anticipation of a good show.
So, sure enough, I successfully lowered myself to the ground with my legs dividing in opposite directions. And then there I was: fulfilling my boastful claim of being able to do the splits. But this ended up falling far short of being a moment of triumph. You see, the last time I would ever do the splits was the first time I had ever worn jeans.
That’s right. Not only had I done the splits. My brand new jeans echoed my efforts and split from the front of my pants right to the back of my pants. As the girls laughed, I grabbed the gaping part of my pants and ran – awkwardly – but as fast as I could back home.
This “Look-What-I-Can-Do” moment was one that I would not repeat again. But I had other tricks that I was only too happy to share with the world. Throughout my life, as a kid, as a teenager, and even as an adult, I’ve had my bag of tricks – my bag of “Look-What-I-Can-Do’s”.
OUR LIVES ARE AN OPEN FACEBOOK
Most, if not all, of us have, at one point or another, turned to a parent, a sibling, or a friend and said, “Look what I can do.” It’s a way of standing out, of being noticed. It’s what we do to say, “Look at me. This is what makes me different. This is what makes me special. This is what makes me me.”
And now we find ourselves in a society which lives each day with that motto. Reality television is filled with people wanting to be noticed – some for great skills and some, perhaps many, for the complete lack thereof. Wedding proposals are broadcast on Jumbotrons. And then you have social media which is often used by people to announce every aspect of their lives – from the professional to the personal; from the mundane to the extraordinary. Indeed, so many in our society live as though their lives were an open Facebook.
Wanting to be noticed is a natural part of who we are. But what we choose to share with the world, what we choose to announce to the world, says so much about who we are.
Perhaps the most twisted example of this is occurring right here and now in a shockingly savage way. Almost every week, if not daily, we hear of another atrocity committed by ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – or ISIL: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Last week, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were executed in revolting fashion by ISIS in Libya. ISIS proudly broadcast the gruesome spectacle globally across the internet.
A couple of weeks ago, a helpless Jordanian pilot met his undeserved end in yet another horrific manner. Again, ISIS made the grotesque display of savagery and inhumanity available for the entire world to see.
Before that, ISIS was pitiless in their contemptible actions committed against two Japanese hostages. And they released that footage to the world as well.
‘Look!’, they seem to be saying, ‘Look at me! Look what I can do!’
Partly because they don’t deserve the attention and partly because the list is far too long, I won’t go into every atrocity they’ve perpetrated. But these atrocities are acts that they are proud of. These barbaric sequences are ones that they are doing in the name of God! And so they are not ashamed. They gladly put it on video and declare, ‘Look! Look what I can do!’
Another incident comes to mind. In 2000, two Israeli reservists mistakenly entered Ramallah, a West Bank city under the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction. Soon after being taken to a police station, over 1000 Palestinians had assembled in front of the building. Several Palestinians broke through and entered the police station, then murdered both soldiers. The details are actually too gruesome to share here.
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What was striking and incredibly disturbing was that one of the Palestinian attackers stood at the window and gleefully raised his blood-soaked hands to the crowd below. No hint of shame. Absolute pride. He wanted to show everyone. He was, in effect, shouting to everyone below: ‘Look! Look what I can do!’
Today’s Torah reading details the construction of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. This construction would house various holy objects and the Ark containing God’s testimony, the commandments.
The instructions God gives are truly intricate. The artistry demanded was of the highest calibre. The elements used for its construction were of quality: acacia wood, precious stones, silver, and pure gold. But why bother? Why bother making the contents of the Tabernacle so beautiful? After all, virtually no one would ever see it! Ever! So who cares what it looked like on the inside? Who cares if you spend an exorbitant amount of money on it or if you spend virtually nothing on it? No one would see it!
Because some things in this world have great meaning, great importance, great beauty in and of themselves. Because some things in this world that do have such meaning, importance, or beauty do not have to be paraded before the rest of the world. Their value is not augmented by being on display for everyone. And their value is not diminished if they aren’t witnessed by the masses.
We don’t have to say, “Look at me!” or “Look what I can do” about everything we believe has value. And, again, what we claim has value to us says so much about who we are.
And what is the value of the Mishkan, of the Tabernacle? It is the symbolic dwelling of God. It is God’s house. For inside it lies the Ark that contains the Pact, the Covenant, that God will make with the people Israel. It is the word of God that rests inside this structure. Speaking to Moses, God says:
Because the Tabernacle houses the word of God, we know it has value and we are compelled, therefore, to make it beautiful. But we do not need to put all of it on display. Knowing it is there and knowing what it holds is enough to know how dear it is and that it therefore merits a construction of supreme calibre and exceeding beauty.
There are outrages both small and great in our world. The small shockers like, ‘Did you hear what so-and-so from Reality Show X said?’ to the huge shockers like the horrors committed by ISIS capture our attention. But there are surprises that are inspiring and moving as well.
Last week in Denmark, a terrorist acting in the name of Islam attacked a free speech event and then a synagogue where a Bat Mitzvah was being celebrated. Today – this Shabbat – a group of Muslims in Oslo is responding by forming a “ring of peace” around a local synagogue. The group’s Facebook invitation reads as follows:
Now here is something worth broadcasting to the world. Here is something worth shouting out to the world: “Look! Look what I can do!”
THE EARTH IS OUR TABERNACLE
The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, holds the word of God. Because of this, we are instructed to beautify it. We are instructed to use our human skills to render the physical environment around it as remarkable and as splendorous as the spiritual content within it.
But isn’t this entire world filled with the presence of God? Isn’t this entire world filled with the word of God? If so, let us use our skill to make the world we live in reflect that spiritual beauty. Let us endeavour to overcome the forces that seek destruction. Let us instead be like the people of Israel who banded together in common purpose of construction – construction of something holy and spiritual and good. Let us be inspired by our Muslim neighbours in Oslo who, this very day, are joining hands in the name of religion, love, and peace to allow us to pray. Let us do all this so that one day, each of us can look not to the internet or to the world but at our children or up to the heavens, at the living God, and declare, “Look! Look what I can do!”