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March 4, 2016

Finding God in the Shadows (Parashat Vayak’heil)

Angela W. Buchdahl

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

I just got back from Los Angeles where last Shabbat I had the privilege of installing Rabbi Andy Straus as the senior rabbi of Temple Adat Elohim. 

It’s a wonderful congregation and a bashert match, and he sends warm regards and thanks to his Central family. 

While out on the other coast, I got a chance to see my sister who lives in LA and is a classical violist. On Friday morning, it was 80 degrees and we went to the beach.  I said, “I just left 22 degrees back home, it’s February, and now we’re at the beach!” 

My sister nodded, “Yeah, it’s pretty great.  But sunshine is not so simple.  We’re in a drought.  And I frankly miss the rain and even the clouds. As much as I love the climate, it’s harder to be a musician here.  Relentless sunshine doesn’t offer the best conditions for creative angst.”

I thought about that idea.  Sometimes we need the clouds and even storms to fuel creativity.  But often we only want to seek out sunlight because it can lift our burdens or brighten our mood.  That is not just an approach to the weather: for some, it’s also an approach to faith.  We talk about always walking in the light of God, which theologian Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full-on solar spirituality.”  This sunny spirituality is expressed by the idea that God warms us, shines over and around us, never leaves or abandons us.  It’s a certainty of God’s forgiveness and a loving community all the time. Who wouldn’t want this full-on solar spirituality?  To be in God’s light all day long?

In some of my darkest moments of sadness or struggle, I find myself seeking the light.  Believing in an easier day.  It’s in our Jewish DNA—the notion of coming through, starting afresh, seeing our burdens lifted. We Jews have faith in the light. 

In the Torah, it seems pretty straightforward: light is good and darkness, bad.  God created light and it was good.  God sent the ninth plague of darkness and it was bad.  Light is where we see and are seen.  Jews are called to be a light: Or L’goyim—a light to the nations.

But with all this emphasis on light, we forget that sometimes our greatest learning happens in the dark.  Our texts might suggest, at first, that darkness is only a deficiency, something to be overcome, but we know that sometimes we stumble on discoveries in the dark, we forge relationships in the tunnel. 

And even if there’s no visible upside to a period of struggle, we try to figure out how to sit with deep pain without feeling God has abandoned us.  Because sometimes those shadow feelings of loss, confusion, insult, or hurt—a sense of God’s absence—simply do not go away, and no light clears it up.  The isolation is darker than we think we can bear.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a long-time member who lost her beloved husband of over 50 years.  I encouraged her to come to services to say Kaddish; she hadn’t been to Friday night services in a long time.  She happened to come the week of Shabbat Shirah, where we had a particularly energetic service of song and even dancing.  Afterwards she said to me, “I shouldn’t have come.  The service was very joyous, and that is great.  But there was no room for my pain.  I found no comfort, no sanctuary.” 

How do we hold joy and anguish in the same moment, in the same service? 

In last week’s portion, when Moses comes back from the mountain with the second set of tablets that he etched with God’s help, he doesn’t realize that his skin is glowing—so radiant that the Israelites shrink from coming near him and Moses later puts on a veil. He has just talked to God directly—the Torah says he knew God panim al panim, face to face—and so his face literally shines because of that intimate moment with the divine.

This amazing light-filled leader who knows God with deep certainty—even Moses can’t build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, alone.  So Moses calls for gifts from all the people, all different kinds of materials and skills.  But he says that God singled out one person to be the chief architect: Bezalel, who was endowed with a divine proficiency in every kind of craft.  You know by now that names in the Bible are never accidental: Bezalel means the Shadow of God.  The Shadow of God.  Moses may have been glowing, but the chief artisan of the Mishkan lived in the shadows, in the darker places.

The Torah gives three words to describe Bezazel’s divine spirit: he has chochmah, tevunah, and da’at—skill, ability, and knowledge. At first blush, they appear to be three synonyms.  But the rabbis parse them more subtly. 

Rashi, the medieval commentator, says that chochmah, skill, is what a person learns from others.  Tevunah, ability, is the result of one’s own insight and experience.  And da’at, knowledge, is divine inspiration that suddenly springs up from an unknown source.  In other words, Bezazel, our shadow man, learned from others, learned from himself, and learned from God.

So Bezazel proves it. Darkness isn’t so simple.  It isn’t only bad or only hard: darkness educates us.  Darkness tests our resilience. Bezalel, the designer of the sanctuary and our sacred ark, was a figure whose darkness was his gift, a prerequisite for his artistry.  And then when we recall that the Mishkan was transported under a cloud—that God kept a cloud over the Tabernacle to guide our way, we see again that stunning partnership: the light of Torah was carried by a figure of darkness under a cloud.  It’s such a Jewish idea: our light and darkness need each other.

Moses, the man who glowed, needed Bezalel, the man from the shadows.

We need the singing of Shabbat Shirah with the sobriety of the Kaddish prayer.

I need my sister’s California with my New York, the shadows with the light—they give us texture, depth, and perspective. With both, we can create a sanctuary where pain, loss, and doubt coexist with clarity, healing, and hope.

It’s not helpful to pretend that life is always light or that the light is always good.  Our text teaches us how we might build a Mishkan here, every week where people bring all of their gifts, their light and their shadows, to create a sanctuary where God can dwell among us.