Photo Credit: Wikimaps

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

The morning after Tisha b’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the Temple, children set out to play a messianic game of rebuilding the Temple. They begin to dig on a mountainside, uncover shingles buried in the earth, and soon discover that there is a whole roof just underneath the ground. The townspeople believe that it may be the legendary castle in which a local lord locked in all his wife’s lovers, burying them all alive. When stained-glass windows are revealed, the building is thought to be an old church, and Jews are banished from the excavation. Finally, all can see it is the Great Synagogue, perfectly preserved, magnificent as in days of old. A ghostly voice is heard from within, chanting, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,” and the locked doors swing open. The Ark and Torah scrolls are perfectly preserved. “Everything was in its place, intact. Only the Eternal Light was on the point of going out (‘The Great Synagogue,’ by SY Agnon).”


Robert Alter points out, “Before the full emergence of the house of prayer, its site is marked in public surmise by murder, promiscuity, and an alien cult, the three cardinal sins (Necessary Angels pg 16).”

The adventure in Agnon’s story that begins with the discovery of shingles leading to the unveiling of the Great Synagogue is reversed in this week’s portion that describes the camp of Israel centered on the Tabernacle. Our tale begins with God’s House, open and revealed. As the camp expands its reach in four directions, God places flags, symbols of the past, including murder, promiscuity and other terrible tales. Simeon’s flag had the remaining shingles of the massacre of Shechem. Reuben’s, a reminder of the mandrakes he brought to his mother, indications of what lay underneath, jealousy that threatened the family’s unity. The people could not look toward the Tabernacle without remembering that just underneath the desert’s surface lay history’s ghosts.

The children playing their messianic game in The Great Synagogue found their Temple hiding underground, dug through murderous castles and churches to find that all they needed to do was add oil to the Eternal Light. The Children of Israel, whose Eternal Light was burning strong, had to dig through history to find that their Light, their messianic adventure, burned bright despite horrible mistakes.

Both stories fill the air in Israel as we dig through the past uncovering her hidden places, even as we continue to extend the reach of the Temple Mount in all directions, building our physical and spiritual future. Is this not the essence of the Messianic adventure of both tales?

Which story will we live as we approach Shavuot, the Revelation at Sinai, in just a few days? Will we be the children digging through the past, sifting through history to find what once was? Perhaps we will stand at Sinai, with Revelation burning bright, noticing the archeological flags of Ezekiel’s and Habbakuk’s visions, wondering how we reached this great point despite our troubled history. Which story do we tell our children?

There are people who study Torah all Shavuot night to “repair” the failing of Israel, who overslept the morning of Revelation. They examine their lives and believe that all they can find are a few shingles of Israel’s once great heights, and begin to dig deep, desperate to find the Great Synagogue. Their messianic adventure, on Shavuot and every day, is to find what once was, desperately attempting to fix their internal darkness, hoping to find their perfectly preserved light waiting for some oil.

Then there are those who begin Shavuot with all the light in their lives burning bright, as it did in this week’s portion, and are so thrilled with life and its opportunities that they cannot sleep. Even when they struggle through their exhaustion to pray in the morning, they see the flags that remind us that our light burns bright despite our limitations and mistakes. Their Messianic adventure is one in which we celebrate all we have, convinced that their joyful light will illuminate the world and bring hope and blessing.

I rush toward Shavuot filled with expectation to stand in the camp with its flags, ready for my life as an adventure, overcoming all stumbling blocks with the brilliant light of a life of possibilities.

Shabbat Shalom!