Thursday, 27 Feb 2020

Written by Matthew Turchin


For six months it went on like this. I’d have just settled into a productive routine, an easily maintained lifestyle. I knew where all of the food and pantry items were kept. Meals were planned easily, effectively, and economically. I knew where to find just the right pan, the best knife for the job, and the correct oil for seasoning my salad. My clothes were organized and put away appropriately, easy to access and use. My books were just where I needed them, on a workspace designated for studying. Things were in place, everything was in order, and it all made sense. And just like that, it was time to move. Perishable items were used up, utensils and food packed away from the kitchen, all of my belongings back either into my wheeled bag, my camping backpack, or my shoulder bag, and all surfaces scrubbed clean, vacuumed, mopped, and left as new. Then my brother and I would schlep our luggage down the steep and narrow peril of stairs to the street, leave the keys in the appropriate hiding place, and half-roll half-drag our way to the next place, perhaps a 20 minute walk, often much more. After securing new keys, it would often be a 5 floor haul up, laden with the entirety of our belongings, a few minutes figuring out a new tricky lock, and finally the door swinging open into our new temporary digs. This was the routine, and it became a major familiar part of our experience for the entire time we lived together in Israel. We were temporary, never too comfortable, but always set with everything we needed. We grew no moss, dropped no mooring lines, and set no foundations, yet we did have homes of a sort, dwelling places, and the comfort of keeping our valuables safe and close, organized and near at hand, temporary though those spaces were.

As for our situation with vaguely planned uncertainty and fleeting security, I was the architect of this adventure, and my brother was rolling along, wavering somewhere between trusting me implicity and openly declaring his desire to return home to America. We are quite different, and for him, in his roller-coaster life, uncertainty always leads to hardship, disorder, chaos, and potential ruin. For me, however, who has not lived through his experiences, there is a joy in the adventure, in the unknown, in the last minute deals that give us one week more of a roof to shelter us and beds in which to sleep, or the unexpected circumstance that might leave us standing on the roadside, surrounded by our belongings, wondering where we will sleep, and me left feeling like I have let him down.

Temporary, highly-mobile living is not for everyone. The Bedouins of the Middle East have lived in this manner since time immemorial as a chosen and honoured lifestyle, refugees of certain volatile regions are forced to endure it as they seek safer locations in which to live, with their very lives and safety hanging in the balance, whereas lovers of camping and adventurers enjoy the opportunity to experience it as sport, for pure enjoyment, knowing full well that they have the promise of more solid and permanent ground to which to return.

In parshat Terumah, it is the very house of God that the Israelites are instructed to build, “a sanctuary, that [God] may dwell among them.” (Ex 25:8) A house above all, detailed down to the last peg and the loftiest ornament, with the specific intent that it be mobile. For a bit of context, these Israelites, former slaves though they were, had known the comfort and security of stable dwelling places for hundreds of years in Egypt. Their lives may not have been easy, and their existence may have been at the will of others, but they did have solid homes in established neighborhoods in an economically stable kingdom. And now, after witnessing miracles of God and being granted freedom and a Divine covenant, the permanence of their wandering becomes concrete. This people will not be building new sturdy homes, nor a grand palatial sanctuary for their God, but rather continue in their temporary homes designed to be packed up and carried along to the next location. And it is not just their personal and familial homes which will continue to be constructed and disassembled in this fashion, but even God has demanded one of the same, albeit on a much grander scale.

Had the Biblical wilderness been in Sweden, the Torah would have no doubt commenced a narrative of confusing images with marginally helpful arrows and brief moments of illuminating text, and perhaps even a small set of uni-purpose tools. But this was the wilderness between the slavery of Egypt and the anticipated freedom of permanence in the promised land, the beginning of a decades long exercise in impermanence, rootlessness, lightly moored lines, and insufficient time for moss to grow. This, however, did not diminish the glory and splendor of God’s demand. The finest materials would be used for this venture, the choicest textiles, stones, woods, and precious metals, consecrated to God for the sake of the most holy of structures, the Mikdash, the sanctuary and home for God to dwell among God’s chosen people.

Our lives don’t always have the permanence we so desire. Plans made do not always materialize into the fruitful endeavors we might envision. But it is always possible to make our space a holy space. There is a majesty in permanence, in structures which stand the test of time, even after they have long fallen dormant, devoid of song and soul. But the most temporary space filled with love, spirit and song, and imbued with the holiness of communal purpose, can endure beyond them all.

Matthew Turchin LBC rabbinic student



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.