Sunday, May 12, 2013

Heaven is a Place on Earth (Portion Naso)

As Belinda Carlisle famously sang back in 1987, heaven is—or at least can be—a place on earth. 

In  this week’s Torah portion, Naso, Moses erects the mishkan, the sanctuary-tent that the Israelites carry through the desert: “On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the Cloud covered it. . . . In the evening, it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of a fire until morning.”  Cloud by day, pillar of fire by night—the Divine Presence, as it were, dwells among the people. 

Indeed, Jewish tradition teaches, when Moses brought the community together to construct the mishkan, he metaphorically wed heaven and earth.  The Midrash Pesikta de Rav Kahana notes that in the beginning, God dwelt among us.  A series of transgressions, beginning with Adam and Eve in Eden, caused the Divine Presence to withdraw.  But a series of righteous acts, ending with Moses’ work on the Tabernacle, invited the Holy One to return. 

When we act out of justice and compassion, heaven and earth are one.  An old folktale tells of a rabbi who longed to see Paradise.  One day, Elijah met him and agreed to show him heaven, on the condition that he make the journey blindfolded.  The rabbi consented, so Elijah covered his eyes and led him for several days.  When they “arrived”, Elijah removed the blindfold.  The rabbi blinked his eyes with astonishment, because what he saw was so familiar: a bunch of sages arguing over the meaning of a page of Talmud.  He turned to Elijah and said, “This can’t be heaven—it looks just like the house of study that I attend every morning!”  To which Elijah replied: “The sages are not in heaven.  Heaven is in the sages.”

Heaven is in the sages—and in us, when we live by their sacred legacy.  On Tuesday night, we will celebrate Shavuot, z’man matan Torahteynu, the time of the giving of the Torah.  May we be ready for, and worthy of, this ever-new and remarkable gift.  And may we follow its map to heaven—right here on earth.

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