Sermon Parshat Pekudei 5779, March 8, 2019
Rabbi Sam Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson
One of the great rites of spring, more important than Rodeo or Mardi Gras or Carnivale and on the same level as Purim, is spring training baseball. I’ll have the pleasure of attending a Spring training game with my sons this coming week, a pastime both relaxing and unique. Where else can you sit outside on a gorgeous day, sip a beer, er, soda, and watch a splendid game played on deep green grass 20 feet away from you—and not feel guilty? Spring training is an American tradition as important as optimism. Every time I think about the world situation, the rise of repressive and brutal dictators around the world, the international, national and local refugee and asylum issues, the ever-increasing examples of Anti-Semitism here and in Europe, the mess of Israeli politics now, the mess of American politics now—every time I think of how lousy things seem to be, I look forward to going to the ballpark to watch hope literally springing eternal.
And after a winter of baseball hot-stove reports filled with endless speculation on two guys who signed contracts worth $300 million dollars each to play this kids’ game, it is great to actually get back to the sport itself, to be reminded that this is a national pasttime filled with one essential message: the rebirth of hope. Old guys with nothing left in the tank suddenly look 10 years younger; unknown rookies look like future most valuable players. Everyone out there is sure that this is going to be their year—and they might just be right. Demonstrably bad teams embrace the coming season as though they will be going to the World Series. It’s enough to restore your faith in the world, at least for a couple of hours. Kids cheer and rush to get autographs, scouts grade the talent on their laptops, players smile at the girls sunning themselves in the stands—God’s in his heaven, and all is right with the world on a spring training diamond. Baseball spring training is the honeymoon of the entire sports world.
There is something escapist about the whole experience, of course, and why not? Everyone needs a little shot of optimism, a place to go where life is fresh and new and anyone might be the next star. Sure, there will be roster cuts and guys will disappear; there will be an end to spring training, the season will begin, and life will return to normal. But for a few weeks there they are selling hope every day, and that’s what people are really buying. It’s hard not to like this season, no matter how overpaid these guys will seem to be in a few months. Right now, it’s pleasant and easy and light.
I’m reminded of a classic film that was very biblical in quality, only it was about baseball. You probably remember it, the best of Kevin Costner’s many baseball movies. It was called Field of Dreams, and it raised this simple, children’s sport to the level of sanctity and myth. There was a wonderful line in it that captured the spirit of this enterprise; say it with me now, if you like: “If you build it, he will come.”
In that film this was all about creating an actual ballfield of dreams that would bring back long-dead superstars and, eventually, the protagonist’s own father, but it surely sounded like much more than than a baseball diamond. And in its simple way, it was actually about something much more important and meaningful than baseball. It was about creating a place where hope could grow, a special location where the separations that occur between parent and child are dissolved, where relationships flourish in an atmosphere of hope and joy. That field became, in a remarkable way, a kind of sanctuary from the conflicts and disappointments of the surrounding, real world.
While I clearly love baseball, and will spend far too much time following it for the next seven months, the very best baseball to experience in person is not Opening Day or a mid-season game or the chaos of the pennant race or the excitement of the playoffs or even the climax of the World Series. The best games are these meaningless Spring Training exhibitions, in which the pure beauty, joy and hope of the sport are on display, free of the pressure of caring about who actually wins or loses. For a couple of hours that spring training field becomes a sanctuary in every sense of the word.
I thought about that quite a lot in examining the Torah portion of Pekudei, this week’s sedrah as we complete the Book of Exodus, finale of the great text that documents our people’s journey to freedom and covenant. We have had a great run in Shmot, the magnficent second book of the Torah: from slavery to freedom, from anarchy to Ten Commandments at Sinai, from a mixed multitude of rag-tag tribes to a true nation, a peoplehood. In most ways, Exodus is the most important book of the Torah.
Its conclusion, too, is significant, but for different reasons. You see, in Pekudei the building and ornamentation of the Tabernacle are finally finished, and the people of Israel can begin to worship God. It is as if the long off-season is complete, and the spring training period of real worship of God has begun.
The purpose of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness is to create a place where we can experience God’s presence in our midst, where we can connect with the Source of Being. It is to give us a location where we can find greater meaning in our lives, dedicate ourselves to living with intention and purpose. But it is also, coming as it does in the wake of the Golden Calf episode, a renewal of hope, a promise that no matter what has preceded it, we now have the opportunity to experience God directly, to have our Creator with us at all times.
That Tabernacle was beautiful, and Pekudei completes the final arrangements for it and its full dedication and use. And when the final bits of gold and silver are attached, when the priests put on last of the vestments and jewels and all is at last in place, Moses consecrates the new sanctuary. And then immediately God’s Presence, the indwelling Shechinah, fills the Tabernacle. It never leaves; that is, God never leaves, but stays in the midst of the Children of Israel ever after.
It is that Tabernacle in the desert, constructed well over three thousand years ago, the ultimate site of holiness and connection to God, that still serves as a model for every Jewish sanctuary in the world, for this sanctuary, too. And it is this Presence that we seek to bring into every temple, congregation, and shul in the entire world.
Why is it so important to have such a place, and to seek to bring God into our midst? Can’t we pray to God anywhere? Isn’t God everywhere?
Well, yes, of course—and no. According to Judaism, particularly Kabbalah but really all Jewish belief, God is everywhere we allow God to be. God will enter anytime we open ourselves to the divine presence, any place we are open to the possiblity that there is more to this universe than ourselves, a spiritual reality that transcends the ordinary, physical, human one in which we live our ordinary lives.
What the sanctuary of Pekudei, and our own sanctuary, offer is the promise of hope in our lives. The promise of promise, if you will, of potential, a kind of eternal spring of new life and new possibility. God can be present here, if we allow God to be; God can bring hope and change and goodness into our lives, if we open ourselves to that spiritual potential present in every one of us. In a very real way, we can rebuild ourselves based on that spiritual renewal.
When we gather here on Shabbat we are, in our own way, building the Tabernacle again, creating the Temple anew right here at Beit Simcha. In doing so, we not only build the Temple; we embrace hope, and promise, and our own lives of real possibility, in this springtime of the year.
May we each find our own renewal, our own new hope, on this Shabbat of dedication.