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the mishkan, fractalized

Parashat T'rumah 5784

Delivered February 16, 2024


Some of us may remember with fondness Harold Hastings, of blessed memory. Harold and his beloved Gretchen were Friday Shabbat regulars. Harold was active in our library committee, in many of our different learning opportunities, and in Creative Beit Midrash. It was in the Creative Beit Midrash that I got to know Harold best, and where he taught many of us about fractals.

 

Harold was a professor of physics and mathematics at Hofstra University. After he retired to the Berkshires, he continued teaching at Simon’s Rock until his death a few years ago. Harold had a quiet joy about him, even when confronted with challenges. He enjoyed living and communicated the sense of wonder he held with others. He often spoke of the enjoyment he took from going out into nature, whether on a weekend hike along the AT or on a daily run. Harold ran daily until cancer prevented him from doing so.

 

Being out in nature, making sure that he–his body and his soul–were soaking up the ongoing process of creation was of paramount importance to Harold. Any of Harold’s friends would often find themselves in a conversation with him about the small things he noticed while out for a hike or a run that day.

 

As part of Creative Beit Midrash, Harold took up his camera, directing his lens to those small things he found in his backyard or along a hike that was, in fact, also quite grand. You see, Harold researched fractals–in math and in nature. We know fractals. A fractal is a geometric figure where each part is the same as the whole. Look at it through a microscope or a telescope, and you will see the same thing. Chrystals are fractals; so are snowflakes. Apparently, star systems have fractal elements. And broccoli. Hold up a head of broccoli, breaking it apart, comparing the whole head with a single floret, and you see the same thing. Harold found beauty in fractals and, through his photography, taught those of us in the Creative Beit Midrash all about that.

 

This week’s Torah portion draws me back to Harold’s interests because Parashat T’rumah (my bar mitzvah Torah portion) is itself a fractal. We are a little more than halfway through the book of Exodus, and this week, God instructs Moses how the Israelites are to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all of its furnishings. This section of Torah should be read as a sort of blueprint. Sketch out what God has in mind, and we find something majestic and holy.

 

“Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among you,” instructs God (Exodus 25:8). From this directive comes even more specific instructions about how to take particular materials and divide them into exact units. Gold rings and fine linen are put together to make coverings. Acacia and gopher wood are used to create the structure. The specificity of the design of the Mishkan is remarkable.

 

While Indiana Jones may have given us the imagination that it would be possible to find the lost Tabernacle one day, the reality is that what is being communicated through these blueprints is something that does not take an archaeologist to find. Especially if read as a fractal. Take the blueprint of the Tabernacle, increase its scale, and you are then reading God’s blueprint of the cosmos. Here is the spiritual understanding of the universe’s architecture and where God dwells. Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you, says God, in this week’s Portion. When the cosmos was formed by whatever power, God was meant to be found within that.

 

That notion is awesome in its own right, and we should not stop there. Because spiritual metaphysics does not change one’s life. Indeed, seeing the power of the universe can give us a greater appreciation for the preciousness of our lives. That was how our friend Harold might have seen it. Yet what we know about fractals is that–like Jacob’s ladder–when we increase or decrease the scale, we are looking at the same angels.

 

So if the Mishkan is the midpoint, and we zoom out, we see the cosmos. When we shrink the Mishkan to its most essential element, what remains?

 

The answer is: you and me. The Chasidic master Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin teaches, “There is no truer Temple than the personality of the individual” (Nefesh HaChayim 4:1). Expand the aperture, and one sees the entire world. Stop down halfway and see the Mishkan. Close the field of view to its narrowest point and see each of us in our own sacred individuality. Each person is the best expression of the Tabernacle. Each person is a blueprint for the way of the world. For this reason, we teach that to save a single life is to save the entire world and that the loss of a life is the destruction of an entire world. Run up and down the chain of fractals, and you will find a chain that runs from humanity to the Mishkan to the cosmos.

 

When God instructs the Israelites to build a sanctuary where God might dwell among them, God tells us to care for ourselves, body and soul. Our bodies and our personalities are Tabernacles, vessels that we can fill up with God’s holiness. Or that we can neglect, allowing our bodies or our souls to fall into disrepair, causing them to break down around us. God’s directive to the Israelites this week, “Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among you,” is active and it is present.

 

We are called to perform self-care as a spiritual act. I was amazed that when Harold–who suffered from a difficult cancer–could not run anymore, he walked. And emotionally, when he had every right to despair, he focused on the beauty in the world around him. He always–in our conversations, even when his battle with cancer was coming to an end–leaned toward gratitude.

 

We have much to learn from Harold’s example. Go, make a sanctuary. Pick up a hammer, gather your many gifts, and build something within yourself. Caring for the Mishkan will take craftsmanship and active participation from each individual within this community. And we know that when we do the work, make the sanctuaries, then we fulfill the promise of the other half of God’s instruction. Then, I will dwell among you. When we take care of ourselves, when we build and maintain our sanctuaries, when we are proper stewards of the world, we create space for God to come in.

 

Now, take a moment and consider the opposite. When we neglect our bodies and our souls, when we give little or no regard to our sacred spaces or relationships, the world comes crashing down around us, does it not? I was recently talking with a college friend. He also has a busy career and an active family life. He has struggled with his weight and fitness for many years. Recently, he’s managed to start exercising again. He’s gone down several pant sizes, his sleep apnea has lessened, he has more energy throughout the day, and he’s finding himself more present for his spouse, his children, and the people he works with. He has realized what Rabbi Chayim saw in this week’s Torah portion; there is no better model of the Tabernacle than we see when we look at ourselves. To care for ourselves is to care for the Mishkan. To care for ourselves is to care for the world.

 

For some of us, those of us who have chronic conditions or are confronting illness that just seems to have come our way, this metaphor does not work perfectly. It is unfair, and I would never say that while others get to have a Mishkan of a body or a spirit, you do not. I do not think God dooms some of us to that fate while others not. Seeing our bodies and our souls as a small fractal version of the Mishkan is an invitation to consider that when we care for ourselves, we make space for God. When we address our physical challenges, whether we bring them upon ourselves or they come to chance, we allow God to enter our lives.

 

And right now, at this moment, that is more important than ever. We are all so busy, living with a standard of stress that escapes few of us. The world is not at ease, and we are not at ease with the world. We encounter others who are unkind and angry, who do not meet us with any sort of generosity. We encounter violence and brokenness with such regularity. This week, we marked the sixth anniversary of the Parkland High School shooting, which happened to coincide with mass shootings at the Lakewood Church in Houston (barely a mile from where I grew up) and in Kansas City at the Chief's celebration parade. This week, Liz has been leading a solidarity mission in Israel, bearing witness to the trauma and struggles of Israelis and Gazans. Our world is not at ease.

 

This is why it is so important to remember the fractal lesson of this week’s Torah portion. Each of us is our own Mishkan. Each Mishkan is the world. And when we do all we can to build up our Mishkan, to care for ourselves and for others, we create space in which God can dwell among us. How we need that right now.

 

I pray that on this Shabbat when we hear the call to build a sanctuary, we take that personally, realizing the call is for each of us individually. And that we do something more than pay it lip service. This weekend, let’s each of us choose one thing that will further help us build our own sanctuaries so that we might fulfill what God intends for us–to be sacred vessels for something greater than ourselves.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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