What could be

Today’s Torah reading covers the last of Exodus, which focuses on God’s instructions for the tabernacle tent. I’m surprised at how detailed they are: according to Moses, God has outlined the exact components for every part of the structure, including their precise dimensions and even what material from which each thing should be built.

God has also made it clear that everyone who is able to contribute, resources and skills, must do so. The people are eager to comply. Carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers—everyone chips in. Even the “working women” give up their precious scraps of metal for the cause. During an informal question and answer portion of the service, the rabbi acknowledges that this may be a reference to prostitutes surrendering the small reflective surfaces they used as mirrors. This small detail, he explains, indicates how even those with very little were willing to sacrifice items essential to their livelihoods.

Once the people understand what the tabernacle is for, they dedicate themselves fully to its construction. They seemed to be soothed by the specificity of the instructions, the lack of ambiguity.

Just as the history of being enslaved helped them grasp how time can be used to draw closer to the sacred, being homeless had made them keenly aware of how a shelter can be used for that same purpose. Experience may have heightened their gratitude for both, but it also made it clear that freedom is the essential ingredient—without it, one cannot organize time in such a way that a Sabbath is possible, just as putting up a structure like a tabernacle isn’t allowed if the land belongs to a person who doesn’t permit it.

With all this focus on homelessness and tents, I can’t help but think about the young people who I found camped on the synagogue steps when I first arrived this morning. Freedom is the ability to say “no,” whether it’s “I won’t work this day” or “I won’t vacate this space until I’m ready.” It’s why the “Occupy” movement is so powerful—people are refusing to leave an area that technically does not belong to them. With their tarps and tents and bed rolls, they are designating a space where everyday rules no longer apply. It’s not all that different from what the Jews did as they trekked across the desert thousands of years ago. The parallels are not lost on the rabbi. At the end of the service, he explains the events of the morning to the members of the congregation, most of whom showed up after the porch was cleared. I don’t know what he could have done differently, but he obviously feels that kicking the occupiers off the porch wasn’t the best choice. “We must ask God for forgiveness,” he says. “We have to right this wrong.” He doesn’t elaborate on what restitution might entail—whether something impersonal like cutting a check to a homeless shelter or more intimate like opening the synagogue’s basement as a shelter on stormy nights—but it reminds me once again what I admire about religion. It doesn’t automatically make you do the right thing, but it helps you imagine that there might be a right thing, lighting the way from what is to what could be.