From the outside, in
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
We often view things from the outside, in. Think about our most recent festival: Sukkot. We are to build sukkot to remember that our ancestors lived in them when leaving Egypt yet there is not a single description in the Torah about what life was like within the sukkah. As for the outside, the rabbis teach that a sukkah is to have two-and-a half walls, a roof through which the stars can be seen, and be fragile enough that a strong wind could blow it down. There are laws about materials and placement. But as for the inside, what they say is limited: The main points are that it is to be decorated and there is to be a table and chairs in it so we can “dwell” there.
There is a certain parallel to the mishkan, the tabernacle. As complex as the structure was, it had to be movable and easily deconstructed because the Israelites did not know if they would be staying in a given location for one night or many. The system of tents and enclosures protected the most sacred: the holy of holies which was only accessed by Aaron. All of the accoutrements in the innermost courtyard were wrapped up and brought out by subgroups of the Levites, not visible to the Israelites. They only saw what was on the exterior.
So, too, with the ark in this week’s Torah portion. How to build an ark as recorded from God to Noah: “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks.” (Genesis 6:14-16; Translation: Sefaria) The focus is on the outside other than mention of the compartments and some sunlight would stream in from that single window. We don’t hear of the goings on within the ark: how closely Noah’s small family had to coordinate their efforts; how exhausted they must have been. How these not-free-range animals were cooped up. The sounds, the smells, the death and new life are not described.
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In all of these examples, it is the innards, the interior, the within that is most important. The values that we live at Sukkot are on the inside: welcoming guests, remembering our ancestors, surrounding our meals with blessings, not eating alone, waving the lulav to show God is everywhere, looking at the vastness of the universe beginning with the stars, eating foods that are locally harvested. The innermost areas of the tabernacle are where God communicates with Aaron through rituals and with Moses through words which give meaning to the Israelites’ lives. The interior of the ark is, simply and profoundly, where life is preserved.
The fall holidays are over and the Book of Life is sealed but its messages are embedded. Let us focus not on exteriors but interiors, beginning with ourselves. In the Reform Rabbis manual (CCAR Press), for a funeral we have this reading after we bury our loved ones: “The dust returns to the earth as it was; the spirit returns to God who gave it. It is only the house of the spirit which we now lay within the earth; the spirit itself cannot die.” Let us live our lives fully: value-laden, meaningful, and holy from the inside, out. PJC
Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.