It was a Saturday morning in the middle of winter — bright and sunny and cold, with a sky washed clean by the wind. Outside, it was business as usual: the boulevard teeming with cars and pedestrians, thousands of plot lines stretching across the city. But inside the sanctuary, it was Shabbat, and another kind of story was unfolding. A young girl stood on the bimah, chanting the prayers in a voice remarkably clear and mature.
She had that look we sometimes see on the face of a new bar or bat mitzvah — the look that takes our breath away. We see, through the contours of the child’s face, the emerging adult. We see confidence and courage and strength; we see joy and hope and a purity of purpose that tears at our heart. They set their dreams before us, these b’nai mitzvah boys and girls. They tell us what they love and what they fear. They tell us what they want to make of their lives, and how they want to change the world. And we, skeptics surprised by the sting of tears in our eyes, believe that they will change the world. We are awe-struck at that moment by the beauty of lives brimming over with promise.
There is a sense of powerful truth in the Midrashic teaching that Betzalel, the creator of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the wilderness, was 13 years old. In this week’s portion, God chooses Betzalel to build the container that will house the Holy Presence. An older craftsman, no matter how skilled, might have been paralyzed with fear at the prospect of such a task. Maybe God needed an artist young enough to dream without constraint, young enough to believe in the possibility of perfection.
We read about two building projects in Ki Tisa: Betzalel is charged with building the sanctuary, and the Israelites persuade Aaron to build them a golden calf.
The tabernacle is, in every sense, an answer to the idolatrous image of the calf. The calf is a product of the people’s anxiety and loneliness; it is the fruit of spiritual crisis. With Moses on the mountain for 40 days, communing with God, the Israelites feel abandoned. Convinced that they are alone in the wilderness, they lapse into panic and demand of Aaron: “Make us a god who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).
The wilderness tabernacle, in contrast, is a statement of faith in God’s real and living presence. Containing two stone tablets “inscribed with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), it asserts that we are not alone in an indifferent universe: The Holy One does indeed dwell among the people. The tabernacle is the symbol of reconciliation between God and Israel. After the painful trauma of the golden calf, says the Midrash, “Betzalel came and healed the wound” (Exodus Rabba 48:5).
Every synagogue today carries a spark of sanctity from the desert mishkan, and all of us who build and support synagogues are like Betzalel, affirming the possibility of God’s holy presence in our midst.
And every now and then, something happens in the sanctuary that reminds us what it’s like to feel the Holy Presence. We watch a young girl stand alone on the bimah on the most important morning of her life. Her mother is there to celebrate with her, but not her father; he didn’t live to see the day of his daughter’s bat mitzvah. The sanctuary is full of loving relatives and friends, most of whom break into tears when the bat mitzvah tells her dad that she misses him and will love him forever.
The sadness of a girl bereft of her father is deep and undeniable. But we sense, even so, that God’s fingerprints are all over this scene: in the way the girl stands before the congregation so poised and unafraid, in the way she lifts up her voice with clarity and strength, in the way she opens her heart and sets her dreams before us. God is there in the mother’s embrace of her daughter, and in the words of love and comfort she offers her today and every day, and in the community of family and friends that gathers to celebrate the emergence of a young Jewish woman who will, we are quite sure, someday change the world. God is there, above all, in the power of an ancient tradition that shelters and sustains her as she leaves her childhood behind.
It is, in most ways, an ordinary winter morning in our car-congested city. Except that, on this morning, our eyes are stung by tears as we meet God in the brave, hopeful face of a 13-year-old dreamer.
Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.