Parashat Beha’alotekha 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Beha’alotekha
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

On the day that the Mishkan [portable Tabernacle/Temple] was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Mishkan in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night… At a command of the Eternal, the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Eternal, they made camp… (Numbers 9:15-1618)

In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotekha, Netivot Shalom (Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, 1911-2000, better known as Netivot Shalom or The Slominer, after his book and the Hasidic sect he led) invites us to understand the building of the Mishkan on a personal level. When the Eternal said, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” (Ex. 25:8) this hints at the concept that through the building of the Mishkan, the Eternal will dwell inside each and every one of the Jewish people. Netivot Shalom goes on to teach: “The Mishkan was not a one-time building project, but it is something that every Jewish person must build within themselves each and every day, a special place in one’s life where they make space for the influence of God’s Presence.” [Netivot Shalom on Chumash, Ben Madsen, translator, p. 243.] In the verses from our Torah portion, the building of the Mishkan is written in the anonymous third person; and Netivot Shalom sees that anonymous third person as each of us. Each of us has our own personal daily mission to build an internal Mishkan.

Netivot Shalom continues as he comments about the cloud cover, and sees it as the cloud that can descend upon us when we try to work on ourselves and change our reality. By day it is a cloud, and by night the resistance to change can burn like a fire. When the cloud, or the fire, would lift from the Mishkan, the Jewish people would soldier on in their travels. Netivot Shalom sees the cloud and the fire as tests along our path to our best selves. He writes that when the darkness lifts, we continue onwards and upwards in our spiritual journey. [Netivot Shalom, p. 244]

Lisa Miller, PhD, in her book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life (Random House, 2021) shares decades of neuroscientific research that show two modes of awareness that are available to us at all times: achieving awareness and awakened awareness. Achieving awareness is the “perception that our purpose is to organize and control our lives. It is highly necessary and a very helpful form of perception… But, overused, achieving awareness overrides and changes the structure of our brains, carving pathways of depression, anxiety, stress, and craving… leaving us narrowly focused, unguided by the bigger picture, obsessed with the same track or idea, never satisfied, and often lonely and isolated.” (The Awakened Brain, p. 164-5)

It is like we are overshadowed by a cloud, or a consuming fire.

When we engage our awakened awareness, we make use of different parts of our brain; we see more, integrating information from multiple sources of perception… We are able to perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected with others… and feel more in tune with our life’s purpose and meaning. (Ibid., p. 164-5)

Our awakened brain thus enables us to continue onward and upward in our spiritual journey.

I would propose that the internal Mishkan that each of us builds has the potential to be a guide for us in becoming our best selves. That Mishkan is an internal sanctuary for the Divine Presence that dwells in each of us. As we make our way on our life’s journey, there will be times that are cloud-covered, or even burning with the fire of doubt and despair. These times are indeed challenging to navigate; times when we have to stop and reassess.

When we allow ourselves to awaken to the gifts and blessings that surround us, connecting us to others and to the transcendent Presence beyond us, the cloud and the fires lift – and onwards and upwards we go.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader received ordination from AJR in 2010, is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the current president of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.