Last week as I prepared for Shabbat, I felt the presence of one of our great Reform movement teachers, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, z’l, accompanying me in my study.
For in the 25th chapter of Exodus, the composers of Torah sent us a clear message about not sequestering our spiritual lives in the sanctuaries we build. The Torah instructs, V’Asu Li Mikdash V’shochanti B’tocham, make for me a sanctuary. But I will dwell among you.
I will dwell among you. What does that mean? The Chasidic teacher Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught that there is a reason the text says, b’tocham, within them – and not inside the sanctuary. It is to teach us that each person, on a day-to-day basis should build a sanctuary for God within us. The sanctuary in our hearts can be seen guiding us, inspiring us and helping us to distinguish one moment as different from the one that preceded it.
I see the Kotzker Rebbe begging us not to artificially put a separation between our spiritual lives when we stand in the sanctuary rather than when we are stand in the marketplace encountering fellow human beings. For me, this verse of Torah is not so much about God promising to be within us. Rather I see God as holding out for us the possibility of meeting us in-between where we are and where our connection begins to the covenant we share with God. Would that we could summon up that connection to our covenant every time we sought it? Would that we could reach that feeling and thus be accompanied, nourished, held and protected by God?
Eugene Borowitz challenged students at Hebrew Union College for many decades. He felt that we all in the post-modern age could bind ourselves anew to God’s covenant, and to offer our part in the covenant with nothing less than the substance and intellectual rigor and commitment God would desire. But Borowitz also warned us not to think that God can be automatically summoned up, like a magician draws the rabbit out of her hat with just a word. When he died last month, Borowitz left a treasure of teachings in dozens of volumes. He died in January having had one of the greatest influences among American rabbis of the 20th century.
More importantly, Borowitz instructed his students that the primary concept in our Jewish lives is that we are bound to a covenant, a set of promises mutually fulfilled by us and God. It is our duty, he would say: to pray, to act, to build a substantial record of follow-through on the commandments of the covenant. I must say it was a rewarding aspect of my studies at Hebrew Union College to have him teach me, question me and keep me honest.
In his book, “Renewing the Covenant,” Borowitz illustrated how one could be honest and true to a covenant with God, even while doing something as mundane as running out for a quick sandwich between busy commitments.
He wrote: “I dash out between classes to grab a fried fish sandwich at McDonald’s. As I find a seat in the crowded, semi-greasy table area, I am quite preoccupied. I have to get back to class early because someone wanted to see me and I’m troubled because I’m not sure I prepared adequately for the meeting I am later leading. As I hastily unwrap the sandwich I remember this time my Jewish duty to say a motzi before I eat.
Something inhibits me from doing that in McDonald’s. Even elsewhere, I don't quite know how to handle the situation when I lunch with another Jew who does not say the brachah. In either case, if I say the brachah out loud, other people will feel uncomfortable. So, not wishing to be a public nuisance or because of my inhibitions, I say it to myself, silently, which, because of the tumult, isn’t always easy. If I let all this overwhelm me, I know that saying the motzi will not be very meaningful. So, hoping to let its spiritual purpose work, I must stop dead still, take control of my frazzled self, center my soul for a precious minute and only then say the brachah.
If I am to find the transcendent even in McDonald’s, I must do my part in seeking – in this case by fighting cultural norms and my personal drive to get on with my work. Yet, if I ignored my Jewish duty, I would come to most meals mired in the muck of using and being used. I make no claim that every time I follow this ritual I encounter the transcendent ... But that it does not happen every time does not mean it never happens. Though I have no special gift for spiritually, something does occasionally happen. Saying my motzi amid the city rush, I sometimes again fleetingly but truly touch the ultimate, reaffirming in this instant what I believe and must yet do. For all that these slight, intangible experiences pass so quickly, few things are as precious for they momentarily restore to me everything the metropolis seems organized to take from me.
If McDonald’s isn’t the right metaphor, allow me to expand on his teaching, as a student who prized the rewards of his attention as my teacher. Borowitz’s story could be found in any secular setting in your life.
• You could be waiting for your turn at the barbershop.
• You could be picking up your grandchild at the baggage claim at the airport.
• You could be calling a friend, as they requested, to let them know that you indeed got home OK from your drive on a snowy night.
In all of these places, you have a choice about how to use your soul, your words and your presence to reflect your most noble of values. Whether you pause to pray or not, you have a choice as to whether you strive to “bring your soul back to its purpose.” If only for a minute each day, and in the most mundane of places, we can nevertheless fulfill our duties to a covenant that began long before us and that will long survive us. God is b’tocham, within the sanctuary that moves inside us wherever we travel in this life.
I love that Borowitz acknowledges the way “the metropolis organizes to take from us” the essence of what we need to live with gratitude and pray with sincerity in each and every moment. For these words reach across the decades since my studies at Hebrew Union College and remind me of the unique example Borowitz set among the rabbis who have ever stood in the chain of tradition. Though he died a few weeks ago, his memory triggers a sense of responsibility and hope in his students. He is a reminder that there is strength in faith, and that a good name endures beyond the grave. May we be equal to his highest intentions for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk is senior rabbi of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.