June 9, 2023
In Our Raising Up
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
"In Our Raising Up"
Rabbi Sarah Berman
Let me start with a question:
Can you point to where you think God lives?
Most of you pointed upward—toward the heavens.
God lives “up there.”
You’re absolutely right—our tradition often associates God with high places. Mountain tops, the clouds, the sky beyond the clouds—these are definitely places where God can be found.
This week’s parashah opens with God giving instructions to raise up a menorah in the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary of the Israelite people.
In doing so, God is commanding us to create a beacon of light in the darkness. Placed at the center of the Israelites’ encampment, the menorah will count the days of the week, it will give a focal point to the camp, and will provide a unifying symbol for these 12 separate tribes.
In other words, this menorah will help our people mark time, help us to define space, and help us coalesce as a single people.
But the parashah isn’t named “Parashat Menorah.”
No, this is “Parashat B’ha’alot’cha.”
It is the portion “of your raising up.”
In this portion, God clearly tells us to raise up light.
We are told to raise up our eyes, our attention, our hearts, our senses of possibility. We are invited to raise up…to encounter God.
The beautiful Moorish Revival Sanctuary we are in offered a similar invitation—to raise up—when it first opened in 1872.
When our modestly-sized downtown congregation moved uptown in the 1870s, it did so in grand style. Unlike the homes of most congregants at the time—with their low ceilings, small windows, and little light or air circulating—this new synagogue audaciously filled its interior with open space.
As those early congregants sat in the pews at floor level, and even on the balconies, their attention naturally was drawn upward—to the star-spangled ceiling, the gas-lit chandeliers… and to the cubits and cubits of empty air.
Here, they could have imagined, here is a space worthy of the Holy One’s presence.
And down on the floor, they would have known their own insignificance—dwarfed in the face of the Infinite. But to be present in such a wide-open space, filled only by God up above—it would have felt miraculous all the same.
Starting from the time when she first arrived at Central Synagogue 16 years ago, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (then our Senior Cantor) has worked another, more modern, miracle: She made this soaring space feel intimate.
Not just once, but every time we enter it.
We no longer feel dwarfed by the height of our Sanctuary, nor do we feel insignificant under the weight of its grand design and proud history.
Through our music, our prayers, and the words of our Clergy, Rabbi Buchdahl’s miracle-working turned this space from intimidating to inviting.
Rabbi Buchdahl, Cantor [Daniel] Mutlu, and all of the amazing Clergy of Central Synagogue make us all feel as if this space is no larger than the community that fills it. It has become a truly shared space, one measured on a human scale.
Since we unveiled Where Lines Converge in November, however, we have been reminded that in addition to being intimate, this space also soars.
In addition to it being measured on a personal, human scale, it is also majestic. This beautiful installation by Nell Breyer has risen up above our heads here in the Sanctuary these last seven months. A sculpture, a dance, an installation of string and brass, this work of art has changed our Sanctuary in ways both subtle and profound. It has made us look up; it has raised us up—it has helped us encounter God.
Where Lines Converge resonates with the full span of our Jewish tradition:
It reminds us how God cracked open the darkness to reveal shafts of light on the first day of creation. It recreates the pillars of cloud and fire that accompanied our ancient ancestors as they wandered the wilderness of Sinai between enslavement and freedom. It stands in for the columns of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, guarding the entrance to God’s home on earth. It gives body to Shechinah, the presence of God that reaches down to us in comfort. And it reminds us of the seven-branched menorah in the wilderness, the light that we raised up to connect our people to time, to one another, and to God.
In her statement about this installation, Nell Breyer wrote that it, “invites viewers to consider the enormity of activity overhead—the vibrations, light, color, air, temperatures, sounds, matter and movements— within the space and beyond it.” Nell has asked us to raise up our eyes and see this space in a new way (or, in an old way made to feel entirely new again). She has asked us to feel something when we walk into this space, to feel like a small piece of a much larger universe above.
And I do feel small, when I walk into the Sanctuary, and see these lines of string and brass, anchored to the ceiling but pointing toward the heavens.
But feeling small is not the same as feeling insignificant, because the vibrations and movements that these strings pick up are only made possible by our presence. We impact the work, as much as it impacts us.
It has been an honor and a pleasure to share this artwork with you, our Central community, since we installed it last November, but the time is coming, to say goodbye.
Where Lines Converge will be on view for the next two weeks only, coming down after Shabbat on the 23rd and 24th of this month. I hope over these next two weeks, you will take one last opportunity to look up, to raise up your eyes to the heavens, and to take in the gorgeous grandeur of this space.
For the last seven months, Where Lines Converge has reminded us that while this Sanctuary is an intimate space, it is also soaring. This work of art has re-inflated the personal scale into something majestic. This is a place where we can look across, at eye level, and see our community, where we can hear one another’s voices and songs; and it is also a place where we can look up, a space which raises our innermost desires and prayers up to the very heavens.
In this week’s parashah, we are commanded to raise seven branches on our people’s menorah. If you look up now, you will see there are six branches to this work—six columns of light connecting us to the universe above. The light here is bright, but it isn’t yet complete. Where is the seventh branch?
I believe this work invites each one of us to become that branch—to fill in the gap, to bring our own light into this community and into the world.
You are the seventh branch. And you are, and you are, and I am.
We are the light that completes this menorah.
Looking up can inspire and move us. But in our raising up, let us remember that we don’t need to literally look up in order to find God. We only need to look at the people around us, in this intimate and majestic space, to find a spark of the Divine. We only need to look around us to see the light.