On Shabbat Zakhor this year — the Sabbath of remembering observed a week before Purim — I suspect many of us will focus instinctively on remembering not Amalek’s attack on the Israelites, but the anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic turning our lives upside down.
Shabbat Zakhor of 2020 was the last normal Shabbat service I attended. The Megillah reading on Purim night was the last normal communal event — though the sanctuary was only half full as coronavirus anxiety began to take hold. By week’s end, the synagogue, the kids’ schools and my place of work were all physically closed. The shock of that unceremonious and all-encompassing cessation of life as we knew it evokes difficult memories, even after a year of this new normal — a constrained existence that many of us are still struggling to accept.
Countless people have lost loved ones, their own health, jobs, or homes to this pandemic. For those who have been spared these losses, and who have the luxury of working from home, perhaps the most conspicuous change in our lives has been the confinement to our residences. We have been deprived wholesale of entering the many other spaces that have defined the rhythms of our days, weeks and years, our lifecycle events from birth to death.
So it seems fitting for this fraught anniversary to coincide with the part of the Torah reading cycle that focuses on sacred space.
The Torah’s extended preoccupation with the construction of the Mishkan — the Tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites through the desert — invites us to consider what we have learned about space in our year without. As our physical landscapes have narrowed dramatically, we have found ways to gather, learn, pray, play, exercise, cook, and even travel, all from our screens. But we are painfully aware of how these virtual substitutes fail to achieve what physical spaces can.
A virtual Shabbat service lacks the ambient rustle of tallitot and turning pages in siddurim; the acoustics that allow our voices to soar; the glimmer of light reflecting off the polished brass of the ner tamid; the particular religiosity evoked in the final seconds before the ark curtains close. Saying goodbye to someone we love without accompanying their wooden coffin to the grave; without the serenity of a cemetery enveloping us; without the texture of sanctified earth beneath our shoes—how can we mourn and grieve without the physical trappings through which we honor their memory and begin to let them go?
Like the many details of the Mishkan, these details of our physical spaces matter. They are crucial tools that enable a space to facilitate the specific experiences that we need. The loss of all that they provide is profound.
Bible scholar Nahum Sarna (z”l) points out that the core function of the Mishkan was “to serve as the symbol of God’s continued Presence in the midst of Israel . . . . It is not designed, as are modern places of worship, for communal use.” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 155). From ancient times to the present, people have found ways to connect to the divine in many different places. Jacob became aware of God’s presence in a seemingly random spot along the road upon waking from his dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:16–17). Today, we might feel God at the site of a natural or architectural wonder, in a concert hall resounding with music, in a hospital room with a newborn baby or accompanying a soul about to depart from this world.
And yet, there are many times when it’s not so easy to feel that God is there, and so places of worship play a unique role because they are designed with the express purpose of cultivating our awareness of the divine. The words “Know before Whom you stand” are found above the ark of many synagogues. Church iconography affirms God’s presence even more explicitly for those who worship there. So, too, the Israelites derived spiritual reassurance from a physical home for God in their midst; “let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” God says (Exod. 25:8).
Places of worship play a unique role because they are designed with the express purpose of cultivating our awareness of the divine.
We share that need for reassurance — but we can no longer go to the places we are accustomed to finding it. Religious communities have helped their members cope with the isolation of the pandemic through phone trees, care packages, pastoral counseling and innumerable Zoom sessions. I suspect, however, that many struggle nonetheless with a sense of disconnection from God out of prolonged absence from the spaces designed to inspire faith and prayer. Spiritual isolation — though rarely discussed in the public sphere — is, I believe, just as prevalent as social isolation in COVID times, and just as unsustainable.
We are, and always have been, hardwired to rely on designated physical spaces to address our core needs. Notwithstanding the unprecedented opportunities for connection made possible by the digital era, Zoom will never replicate the benefits that we derive from the spaces beyond our homes. As I understand the Mishkan in this new, pandemic-influenced light, I pray that we will soon return to the beloved spaces that now stand empty, with renewed appreciation for what they offer us. The human soul needs space — both sacred and mundane — to breathe and grow.
Rabbi Julia Andelman is the Director of Community Engagement at The Jewish Theological Seminary. To read more commentaries, visit JTS Torah Online. The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).
Friday, Feb. 19, 2021
Adar 7, 5781
Light candles at 5:18 pm
Saturday, Feb. 20
First Torah: Terumah: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Second Torah: Parshat Zachor: Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: Samuel I 15:1-34
Shabbat ends 6:18 pm.