Ki Tisa - Rabbi Mark Diamond

Holy Places, Holy Words, Holy People

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa ("When you count...") Exodus 30:11-34:35
Haftarah Portion: I Kings 18:1-39

February 23, 2008 / 17 Adar I 5768

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President, The Board of Rabbis of Southern California


"The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood -- to work in every kind of craft."

Exodus 31:1
Bezalel and I became close friends on our recent interfaith mission to Rome and Jerusalem. Though the official count of our delegation was 23 Jews, Christians and Muslims, we had three special metaphysical guests with us. The first was Bezalel. He loved the art and architecture we experienced in Rome---the ornate woodwork and paintings in the Vatican library; the breathtaking frescos of the Sistine Chapel; the architectural and artistic splendor of St. Peter's Basilica and the catacombs that lie deep beneath the church; the ornate rooms in which we met Cardinals and other Vatican officials; the opulence of Rome's Great Synagogue. Not to be outdone, Jerusalem held out its own artistry---the haunting architecture of the new museum at Yad Vashem; the timeless beauty of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the grandeur of the Latin Patriarchate; the ancient stones of the Western Wall; the omnipresent excavations in the Old City uncovering layer upon layer of our history.

Bezalel was a happy camper on our mission. He helped us to treasure the sacred wisdom, knowledge and ability that surrounded us. He kept nudging and cajoling us to pause to appreciate the gold, silver and copper figures and the inlaid gemstones and exquisite woodwork produced by men and women imbued with ru'ah hakodesh, the Divine spirit. It was a constant struggle to keep him and us moving along as we passed before holy art and passed through holy space.

We had another supernal guide on our tour -- none other than Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. A Midrash relates that Moses was distraught that he was not selected as the chief artisan of the Tabernacle. After all, Moses was the leading candidate in the primaries leading up to the election of Artist-in-Residence for the Mishkan. Who but Moses was most qualified to do the job? Was there any candidate who had more experience talking to God, leading the people from slavery to freedom, giving them the Torah?

Moses had the votes to win the election, save for the decisive endorsement of God. The Tabernacle project required more than plans, regulations and fine materials. It required a divinely inspired artist to transform a sacred vision into sacred reality. And Bezalel, whose name means "in the shadow of God," was the right man for the job.

As for Moses, his presence on our interfaith mission was every bit as meaningful and important as was Bezalel's participation. Even as Bezalel nudged us to savor all that beautiful artistry, Moses reminded us to value holy texts and words as well as holy sites. He was by our side when Pope Benedict XVI warmly greeted our Los Angeles delegation and received our gifts of sacred writings. He was seated at the table when we discussed matters of faith and doctrine, interreligious dialogue, Catholic-Jewish relations and the perils of religious extremism with Cardinals of the Vatican Curia. He took part in our lively session with senior officials of the Secretariat of State when we debated Vatican policy in the Middle East and learned about issues of visas for Christian clerics and taxation of church property and income in Israel---an animated dialogue that was l'shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Moses' spirit was with us when our group studied Torah together at the Shalom Hartman Institute, when we prayed together at the Valley of the Communities in Yad Vashem, at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv, and at Kabbalat Shabbat services in Jerusalem.

"Holy places," Bezalel kept whispering in my ear. "What matters in life is sacred art, sacred space and sacred land. We see God's reflection in inspired creative works."

"Holy words," Moses kept whispering in my other ear. "It's not just about paintings and sculptures. It's about sacred books. We experience God in the laws, customs and rituals of our faith traditions."

Thankfully, we had a third Biblical figure who accompanied us on the journey---our ancestor Aharon, Aaron the High Priest. He stood right between Bezalel and Moses and proclaimed, "You're right. And you're right!" Aylu v'aylu divrei Elohim hayim. These and these are the words and images of the living God. We need Bezalel to translate God in the visual world. We need Moses to translate God in the written and spoken word.

This is what we would expect from Aaron, a religious leader who was renowned as an ohev shalom v'rodef shalom---one who loved peace and pursued peace, and did everything in his power to effect reconciliation between people. Aaron kept whispering in my ear: "Don't you get it? Holy places inspire awe. Holy texts inspire reverence. But what about holy people? What about the sanctity of human life?" See how God's children fight over every square meter of sacred space in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. See how they shed blood over every dunam of earth in the Holy Land. See how they desecrate God's name by preaching hatred and committing violence in the name of their religious faith. See how they spend their time and energy arguing over Latin masses and Muslim fatwas. Why even the Jewish vendors at the Vatican have gotten into the act, staging a one-day protest over their historic right to sell religious artifacts in St. Peter's Square.

Aaron's spirit helped us to appreciate what holy people can do to redeem this fractured world. Aaron smiled broadly when we listened to and learned from Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and an assemblage of distinguished Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders---inspired men and women who are actively engaged in interfaith projects, who bring religious voices of goodwill and reconciliation to the quest for shalom. Aaron was present when we met with Rabbi Meir Azari and his colleagues at Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, a cultural center in Jaffa that is doing important work for Israeli Arabs and Jews. And Aaron was surely with us when we visited the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, an innovative educational center that is supported by our Jewish Federation and serves more than 700 at-risk children from 28 different countries. These beautiful young people---children of Darfur refugees, Israeli Arab youngsters, children of legal and illegal foreign workers, sons and daughters of new Israeli immigrants and others---their bright faces radiate the image of God. The principal, teachers, staff and volunteers of Bialik-Rogozin see the Divine image in these precious young lives, and impart that message to their students. When asked, "What's the secret of how you get along with one another," one youngster answered, "We are all human beings and we treat each other equally." Now if we could only learn from this child, Aaron would be proud indeed.

Bezalel; Moses; Aaron. Holy places; holy words; holy people. How privileged we were to travel together to the Vatican and Rome, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We were 23 friends, colleagues, and people of faith, with three supernal guides leading the way.