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Your Divine Presence

By Rabbi Josh Katzan

 

I love the name Mishkon. Deriving from the Hebrew root Sh’K’N, it is the root for the Sh’khina, the Divine Presence. As well, Mishkon is the word for Tabernacle, the place where we draw closer to God with our offerings of quality, as these bring God closer to us. Mishkon is a place to be transformed through relationship with God. But there’s more to the spiritual life than a relationship with God.

 

Another literal meaning of the root Sh’K’N is “neighbor.” There is little in life that helps us feel as connected and as good as when we feel we are an active and necessary part of a group. Mishkon is a place to create community, to build neighborly connection by sharing a space and feeling ownership over a community as a joyous responsibility, one that offers a sense of purpose and meaning. The extent to which we spend time with one another is the extent to which we can know and feel known by others. Feeling known is essential to feeling useful and having a place in a project larger than oneself.

 

As the psychologist and Auschwitz survivor, the great Victor Frankl, taught us, living as though life expects something from us is a key to living with meaning. It's a funny trick God plays on us: On the surface, we think of Mishkon as a synagogue where we come together to pray and fulfill ritual obligations, but what happens is we end up spending meaningful time together, and this helps us live better and happier lives.

 

Johann Hari wrote a wonderful book on depression called Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. In it, he explores theories and realities of depression, and various ways of addressing it. One of the essential underpinnings to depression for a lot of people is, as the title suggests, losing their connection with community and being deprived of feeling they’re able to help make life better for someone else. This could be anything from dedicating oneself to political and social activism, to offering people one’s unique talents and skills (i.e., being a “handyman” or being a compassionate and trustworthy listener), to being a person who chooses to be the smiling greeter at services.

 

I’ll not soon forget Mr. Karsh. He was a gentle and sweet elderly man with a European accent who was famous for his homemade pickles. I met him when I worked at the Hebrew Educational Alliance in Denver, Colorado. Mr. Karsh survived the slaughter at Babi Yar by running for his life ahead of the Ukrainian bullets fired at him by people he had previously known. When talking about the Holocaust, he turned understandably grave, wistful, and heavy. But thereafter, a light-hearted, gentle smile would return to his face, as if in protest of giving any extra time to his would-be murderers. The man shared his smile easily and loved the attention he got when it was “pickle season.” Mr. Karsh took it upon himself to greet every person who entered the sanctuary, smiled, and offered them a siddur and a tallit. If they were new, he would connect them with regulars in the congregation. He was a natural ambassador, and he made everyone’s experience much nicer and special. But as much as everyone received warmth from Mr. Karsh, he himself received the gift of being a relevant and intrinsic part of the community in Denver. Spiritual and cultural eco-systems thrive because of people like Mr. Karsh.

 

It may be a cliché, but the simplest things in life tend to offer outsized dividends. Mishkon is not a special place because it is draped in gold. It is a special place because the people are gold. If we show up, our souls’ sparkling illumination shines on one another, and everyone is lifted up. So please start imagining your presence back at Mishkon.

 

There is a Hassidic story about a young Hassid who, after many years of learning and praying with the group in the Rebbe’s yeshivah, decided he was competent enough to continue his studies and spiritual practice on his own. He informed his Rebbe of his decision. In response, the Rebbe merely walked over to the iron stove that was filled with burning coals (indeed, this story happened long before we needed carbon-conscientiousness) that were ablaze and heating the room. The young Hassid watched as the Rebbe used a rod to separate one of the burning coals from the pile. For a few short minutes, it continued to burn white and bright, but it quickly cooled and turned dark again. Then, the Rebbe gently returned it to the lit pile, and within moments, it reignited, providing added warmth to the room. The Hassid returned the next morning and every day thereafter.

 

For too many of us, this has been a debilitating and depressing year. We’re exhausted, disoriented, and traumatized by the distance and disruption, by the loneliness and the lack of feeling useful to others. Our Zoom experience is sweet and fulfilling in its own way but no substitute for the simple renewal we feel with human contact. We are deprived of one another’s warmth and energy. The vaccines are being rolled out faster and faster with, we hope, no more than a few more months before we can start to plan a responsible reopening.

 

But before we do, I want to ask a favor—as much for you as for me: As we prepare for a chanukat ha’Bayit, a rededication of our spiritual home, let us resolve to find simple ways to contribute. Whether it’s showing up on a regular basis for services, even if it’s mostly to make sure there is a minyan for people to say kaddish for their loved ones, or to participate in a class—or to offer some kind of specialty talent for others to learn, make it a point to become more connected to this community. This will be an important part of everyone’s healing, and I know I will need it deeply.

 

In particular, I would love for there to be a revitalizing of various community-care committees, such as a chessed committee, a committee dedicated to responding to people’s immediate need for guidance, solace, and support should they be faced with sudden medical challenges, for example. I would also love to have something of a “Mishkon Homelessness Response Team” coordinator. As the Rabbis teach, we may not be able to fix the problem, but we are at least obligated to address it in our own reasonable way. And, even if it’s just to appoint yourself to be an “officer of welcoming,” like Mr. Karsh, to offer a gentle smile to people walking into the building on a Shabbat evening or morning, you will be making a big difference.

 

I am already dreaming of how Mishkon can help become a place where people come for rejuvenation, and perhaps even a little rehabilitation of our humanity. I dream of intentionally making too much food for Shabbat dinner and inviting people home to help me enjoy it along with some aging Le’chayim juice.

 

We need each other. We miss being together. Let’s begin looking forward to returning, and perhaps to a little reinvention. I think we will all be pleasantly surprised at just how widely our arms will be able to spread in embracing one another. May we find personal and genuine ways to embrace Mishkon, and may we rejoice in feeling today, as it was in the time of the Torah, that offering our better qualities at the Mishkon brings us closer to God, and God’s presence will be felt touching each of us.

Mon, October 25 2021 19 Cheshvan 5782