Friday, February 15, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?

I first wrote a musing on this theme back in 5757 (1997) that I called "Following Instructions." I  revisited those thoughts in 5762 (2002) and added some new insights I have gleaned to them. I thought it was time to take another look.

In parashat T'rumah, G”d gives us a very specific set of building instructions to create the tabernacle. The question arises,  "how do we make these instructions appropriate and meaningful in today's world?"

I submit is may not be as difficult as it sounds. Let's work our way through the text and see how we can create with what we have today our own virtual tabernacle.

First, we must have a giving heart, for G”d asks those whose hearts impel them to give to the offering (25:2.) We must be willing to give of our precious possessions. In ancient times, it was precious metals, fine fabrics, animals, foods. For us perhaps it is our money and our time. The things that we value and treasure above all are those we must be willing to contribute to creating our Mishkan (tabernacle.) As a musical friend of mine wrote in song, the most precious possession we can give is our time. What is our mishkan if we do not give it our most precious possession?

Next, we must desire to build a place where G”d can dwell among us. (25:9.) This might mean a physical structure, as the tabernacle was, or it might be something more ethereal. In these times, perhaps working toward building a just and compassionate society, and striving to be Jews who seriously try to make sense of all that G”d has asked us to do will provide G”d with a far better home than merely building fancy synagogues and monuments. We need to build welcoming, caring, supportive communities – communities which exist not just in all sorts of physical places, but also in places that might be virtual, connected by electrons, by shared values, desires, and beliefs.Our technology no longer limits us to one place at a time when we assemble. To those who say ”there’s no substitute for being together face to face in the same physical space” I say try opening your mind and heart to new ways of being in community. I think G”d wants, expects no less of us. After all, we are asked to believe that G”d is this ineffable, non-corporeal Deity – why is a virtual community any less worthy of consideration than an unseen, unknowable G”d? Those taking those first brave forays in virtual Jewish communities are the Abrahams of our time. Do we go forth, for ourselves, or do we remain behind?

Our ancestors were told to build an aron (the Holy ark of the Covenant.) (25:10-16) How are we to do this in contemporary times? We build the "sides" of our aron up through our observance and ritual. We cover it inside and outside with "gold" - our love and our sacrifices. We build "four rings" with our faith - giving us something to hold on to. Through the rings of faith go the "poles" of Jewish knowledge and learning. It is upon these that we can support our contemporary aron.

(25:13.) We know what goes inside-our Torah and all-and I mean ALL our teachings.As well as all of our learnings. After all, all of it is Torah.  Once we have placed our teachings and learnings inside we can cover it again with our love of Torah, study, and learning. We are instructed to make the "cherubs" from the same gold as the cover; when we study and learn, or we teach, we become the cherubs, and as our children learn, they too in time will become these cherubic adornments on our contemporary virtual aron. (25:17-21)

Of what are we to build a "table"? (25:22-30) Of our lives-our actions, the things we do day by day. And of what are the "legs" of the table made? Why, mitzvot, of course. Now, we don't want a table with shaky legs, do we? So if the mitzvot are to be the legs that hold up our table, we must be sure that we understand and honor them. Even if our practice is more in the breach of them than the observance, if we at least know them, they can make a reasonably solid leg. We may discover that we need to fashion legs out of new understandings of mitzvot that seem incongruous with our world as it exists today. We must be thoughtful in this process, and think carefully when we simply take an old, worn out leg, and repair it, and when we throw out the old leg and fashion a new one.

(25:31-40) We already know how to make the menorah, the "lamp" - by becoming or l'goyim, a light to the nations. Moses was puzzled by the menorah instructions, the rabbis tell us, so that G”d had to show an example of it. Well, we have our instructions too, in the very writings that tell us this story. We become or l’goyim though the way we live our lives, the way we act based upon our understanding of Torah and tradition, as well as our contemporary understandings of our universe..

(26:1-14) Of what are we to build our tabernacle, our "tent"? The Torah speaks of woven-together tapestries. So we use the stories of our people, the tales, the songs, the histories, the biographies, the dramas and we weave them together into a strong and fine fabric. Lest anyone ever think there is one story or one song too many to weave into our tapestry, the Torah reminds us that there should be an extra portion of our fabric left over and trailing behind the back of our tent. There will always be room for more. Let us all strive to add our stories to the great tapestries that we weave together to make our virtual mishkan.(26:12.)

And what about a "roof" for our virtual tabernacle? What are to be our modern-day ram skins, dolphin skins and hides? Perhaps our vaunted strength, our perseverance, our endurance. We have survived thousands of years of persecution, intolerance, and hatred, and from these perhaps we have the strength and "skins" to protect our tabernacle. Note that we are instructed to make two roof coverings. (26:14) There is great wisdom in this and we would do well to be sure that our modern virtual tabernacle is well protected from the elements. And perhaps we can remind ourselves that we have two layers for the roof, just as we may have an outer skin ourselves that protects us from the harsh realities of everyday life, and protects that inner skin, our vulnerable inner selves.

(26:15-30) Now we need the supporting structure for our virtual tabernacle. The "beams." What can we make those of? Well, we can, each of us, be a supporting pillar, a beam in the structure that supports our tabernacle. Each and every Jew. And an important lesson: we are told to make crossbeams to help hold the beams together. (26:26) A reminder that we must reach and across the gaps between us so that we may strengthen ourselves as a people. How true this is in our time, when there is so much divisiveness in the Jewish community.

(26:31-35) A special "cloth" is now needed to create a separate holy space in which to store our sacred treasure. We can do this in many ways. By observing Shabbat, we create a separate sacred and holy space set apart from the rest of the week. And in taking the time to recite b'rachot (blessings), t'fillah (prayer) and participating in home, synagogue-centered and other newer forms of worship (including virtual ones,) we create little holy pockets of time. These pockets provide a divider between the sacred and profane moments in our lives.

(27:1-8) What shall we use for our "altar"? Do we need a place upon which we can burn sacrifices? In what ways do we make our offerings to G”d in these times? Not with burnt animals. Rashi teaches us that "t'rumah" means not so much gifts as it does "set apart." Perhaps our gift to G”d can be ourselves, when we take the time to observe G”d's commandments, to strive to be good Jews, good citizens, good stewards of our planet. So our altar shall be our hearts and minds, the places from from which our gifts spring.

(27: 9-19) Finally, G”d instructs that the tabernacle be surrounded with an outer "enclosure." The enclosure has stakes to hold it in place. (27:19) "Stakes" must be firmly planted in hard ground. So our enclosure is the reality in which we live. While much of what we must do as Jews serves to separate us from the rest of the world, here is a reminder that we must be tied to the stakes of the ground on which we walk. We must take our place in society, and work from within it to bring about tikkun olam (repair of the world.) For if we pull up our stakes we will merely blow away in the wind. And our Torah is not about how to live life as a wind, as a spirit. It is about how to live life as a human being. And to do that, we must live on this earth with all of G”d's creations, all of G”d’s people. And respect them all.

In virtual reality, we create realistic looking but non-existent things. However, our mishkan need not be non-existent. Thus with heart, body, mind, thought, action, sacrifice and more we construct our Mishkan. It'll be quite something to “see.” Perhaps it is something that we experience more than we see. Sort of like the Sinai experience. And it will be something quite real, though lacking in physical mass. It's "real virtuality." Through the realities of our deeds and thoughts, we create our virtual Mishkan. I hope G”d will be pleased with our work.

As for the “Really Virtual” added to the title of this musing for this year-anyone who doubts that virtual realms and reality do not intersect need only to look at online communities like Second Life, or, PunkTorah’s OneShul . Both are vibrant, thriving, living Jewish communities existing in the electronic aether. They will be joined in time, I am sure, by many others. In this way will our contemporary mishkan exist in both real and virtual space and time.

In years past, I offered a short and simple thought for this parasha which nicely sums up what I have said yet again this year, and I reiterate the sentiment:

Let us each construct in our lives, homes, communities and universe a sanctuary so that G”d may dwell among us. Not a physical sanctuary, but one of thoughts and deeds. Surely G”d will dwell with us when we create such a sanctuary.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©1997, 2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna


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