Sanctuaries, at a complicated moment

This week’s parsha includes the famous line: “Let them make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them.” You can parse it, learn it, sing it, reflect on it. We hear words in different ways, in different moments of our life, at different places in the world.

For me, this week, I was thinking about the presidential elections, and refugees from Syria, and water in Flint, and stabbings in Israel. And too many things on my to do list, and too little time.

These were all in my mind when I arrived at Isabella Freedman yesterday. Davenning Leadership Training Institute is underway – the fourth of four retreats, helping people to lead davening in ways grounded and beautiful. And Diane Bloomfield is here, to lead the Torah Yoga retreat, running at the same time. And – also concurrently – fresh snow on the ground, the lake finally freezing, the remarkable silence waking up here, early on a snowy morning.

Cliches come freshly true when one steps away, outside, in the natural world. I live in a unique urban village (the Upper West Side of Manhattan), which I love. But the obverse of what is great about urban villages – density, people, food choices, culture, synagogues, museums, all within walking distance – is the sound and intensity of city living. It is anodyne and obvious, but no less true, to point out that at a moment when the news is too frequently depressing, it is good for us to step out; good to step away; good to be amidst trees and lakes; good to see old friends and make new ones, or daven together, or learn, or practice yoga, or (ideally) do all of those things.

The sanctuaries we make unfold fractall. Isabella Freedman is a sanctuary. Each retreat here is its own sanctuary. This farm, this eco-system, this piece of land, this neighborhood – each its own sanctuary, nested within larger others; up through the virtual sanctuaries that are Hazon, the Torah, this country. And the sanctuary that is our world.

What I love about the original line in the parsha is that it is partly descriptive, but it is also prescriptive and thus challenging. I – the Divine I – will live amongst them, i.e. will live amongst you all, we all, – if we make a true sanctuary. These places, these neighborhoods, these organizations, these retreats: each is a place of beauty, each bears possibility; yet each requires our active participation and our great goodwill to truly create sanctuary. כן יהי רצון – may it be so.