The Veil of Materiality

None of us could have really imagined what community would look or feel like when the pandemic first hit New York City. All at once, our lives were overcome with a kind of journey we had never really experienced before. With the exception of a few rare news items in which an occasional survivor of the 1918 pandemic holds our attention with their witness, we have traveled through time together in unknown territory.

But we have surprised ourselves, haven’t we? We have celebrated births, baby-namings and brises; bat and bar mitzvahs; weddings and anniversaries. We have mourned lost loved ones, deaths made all the more poignant as the result of our confounding and heart-breaking inability to share the love and warmth of human intimacy in our grief.

Like many innovations throughout history, the materiality of technology has been empowered by human ingenuity for the benefit of humankind.

Two things have made this abundantly clear in the past week. The first relates to my experience of receiving the second dose of the Covid vaccine last Sunday. My location was a large public school gym in Bushwick, where, upon arrival, I waited in the cold with hundreds of others in a four block long line, the demographic make-up of which was every New Yorker imaginable. Age, gender, race, ethnicity, language, ability, faith — differences rendered relatively superficial to the greater good and goal that was before us all: mass vaccination, herd immunity, whatever we choose to call it, was and remains our ultimate aim, which is the preservation of human life.

A selfless pride, if one can offer such a description, suffused the experience. To a person, we were all united in this purpose of preserving life — our own and that of our neighbors. It is nothing short of awe-inspiring when we consider what we can do as people when we organize and set our hearts to the task. “Choose life,” the Torah commands, “so that you and your offspring shall live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Ibn Ezra, the medieval commentator, writes that the command to “choose life” is twofold. First, we are obligated to choose life for ourselves, with our bodies, materially, as it were, in order to survive and pass life itself down to the next generation, our offspring. But second, and equally important, is to choose a life that lives on the path of ultimate meaning, which is love. Love of life, love of God who is the creator of life, and love for the path of goodness that God sets before us: love thy neighbor as thyself; be kind to the stranger, the widow, the orphan.

Standing on a sidewalk in Bushwick I heard Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and, oh, right, English. But this was not the Tower of Babel, an idol of human ingenuity attempting to pierce the veil and stand beside God; rather, this gorgeous aggregation was the most refined expression of patience, resiliency, ingenuity, organization and kindness. It took a while, and a national reckoning with leadership, but we got there. We have a long way to go; but we got there, to that place, to that time. More journeys lie ahead.

The second example that comes to mind when thinking about community in a time of transitional crisis relates to this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. Here we read about God’s commandments to Moses with regard to building the Tabernacle which will house and protect the commandments that Moses is in the midst of receiving on Mount Sinai.

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2).

In my House of Study class today, we honed in on this commandment that God gives the Jewish people and many appropriate and challenging questions arose. Is it really a free-will offering, however our hearts may be moved, when commanded by God? And why all the embarrassing material wealth, some of which we know had been pillaged from the Egyptians when we escaped? “The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-36).

So we can’t build a Golden Calf with all this precious material but we can build a Tabernacle, as long as the worship is for our deity and not “theirs?” As a community of Jews wandering through our own metaphorical desert, the pandemic and a nation undergoing a major identity crisis, we approached the borders and boundaries of discourse and inquiry with lovingkindness toward each other, as well as curiosity and respect for the many places of origin our group represents while also acknowledging that we are also pulling in the same direction.

One voice raised an objection: Isn’t the Tabernacle its own idol? Another voice posited, well, yes and no. Its materiality is channeled toward a superior God, ineffable, unable to be depicted, beyond comprehension. This suggests, she argued, an evolution of human development. And yet, added a third voice, is any of this material expression the point? He pointed us to a passage in Isaiah, where the prophet, half a millennium after the Exodus, tells the Jews who have been settled in the Land of Israel for more than 500 years, “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices,’ says the LORD. ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight In lambs and he-goats’” (Isaiah 1:11).

Material expression, ostentatious in its essence, has never really been what God wanted. Rather, Isaiah says, “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

The clothes don’t make the person. The deeds do.

For a moment (a very brief moment, this group can TALK) we were held in the warm embrace of community; of learning; of peoplehood; and of common purpose. Not only the Torah but generations of those who read it, struggle with it, turn its words over and over again, revealed to us in that still, small voice of revelation that what truly makes a difference in this world is our innate and divinely inspired will to love and do good.

There is so much beauty to behold in materiality: the highest expressions of the artistic impulse and the ingenious structures that convey sustenance and shelter for all in need. But is there any greater beauty than the human capacity for limitless love and generosity? To give as our hearts so move us toward a greater purpose?

Indeed, let us pause to remember what a blessing it is to “choose life” so that we and all who we share this earth with, and all who will come after us, may live.