The Mishkan Within

Guided meditation for Parashat Terumah based on these sources – written by Rabbi Heather for Illini Hillel students

Plant your feet on the floor and sit in a way that is comfortable for you. Take a deep breath. Now take one more. When you’re ready, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take another deep breath. Begin to feel your body relax. Your toes. Legs. Hips. Keep breathing. Release any tightness you’re holding in your torso. Your chest. Drop your shoulders. Keep breathing. Release your jaws. See if you can feel your eyes and ears. Relax those too. Take one more deep breath.

Picture yourself in a desert. In Hebrew, it’s called a midbar – it means wilderness as well as desert. Notice the sand – feel its texture beneath your feet [pause] Gaze up at the wide blue sky and the mountains [pause]. Notice the colors of the mountains. Brown, beige, red – what else is there? [pause] Breathe in the stillness. The silence. The emptiness. [longer pause]

Imagine a beloved leader is up on one of the mountains. You followed this leader out of Mitzrayim, the narrow place, and now you are here, in this vast, expansive wilderness. From the constriction of slavery you arrived in open nothingness. What does this nothing sound like? Smell like? [pause] You don’t know where you are going. You don’t know what’s coming next. You are afraid.

When your leader returns, you receive instructions. You are to build a mishkan, a sanctuary. Here in the desert. Here in the nothingness. Here where you’re far from everything you’ve ever known. A place for the Divine to dwell. God does not need this space – “God is garbed in everything. No place is devoid of the Divine.” But we need a space where we can connect with God. A sanctuary in the desert of our souls. What should this sanctuary look like? Imagine its colors and structure. What textures are part of this sanctuary? Take a few moments to explore it.

Now bring your attention back to your body with another deep breath. The rabbinic tradition links the mishkan to the human body. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.

Like your skin that covers and protects you, there are tapestries and wool hangings around the sanctuary. Your sense of touch is one of the first ways you connected with the world as an infant, while your other senses slowly developed. Your skin is a gateway to human intimacy. Imagine slowly dipping your hand into the desert sand. Notice its temperature, its texture. [Pause] Lift a handful of sand on an inhale. And release the sand with an exhale. Notice the sensation of the sand slipping through your fingers. [Pause] Take another deep breath. And when you are ready, you can release them.

There is an incense altar in the sanctuary, connected to your sense of smell. Scent can return memories to us from long ago. Inhale deeply now through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Is there a scent that feels like a sanctuary to you? [Pause]

There is a menorah in the sanctuary, and a menorah in you – as the menorah sheds light, your mind, your intellect, enlightens your body. Take a deep breath and envision a warm light filling the sanctuary of yourself. Notice the quality of this light. Are there specks of dust that float across? What color is the light? White, yellow, blue, something else? Feel the warmth of this light that brightens even the darkest places, making the desert feel like home. [Pause]

Now place your hand over your heart and see if you can feel its beat. Tap. Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Tap gently with me. Your heart is the innermost part of the sanctuary – the Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Covenant. What else does your heart contain? Listen for its wisdom as you continue tapping. [Pause]

Take a deep breath and pause your tapping. You can keep your hand on your heart if you wish, or you can let it rest. [Pause]

Your body is the sanctuary. Your textures and colors, your breath and your skin. God said that all those whose hearts were moved to give, should bring a gift to the sanctuary. Everyone was asked to give according to their ability – no more, and no less. Every gift was perfect. Every gift was accepted. However your body looks or feels, you are a holy sanctuary. You are accepted. You are loved. You are whole. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.

Take another deep breath and we’ll sit with that for a moment. Explore the sanctuary within.[Pause]

Take another deep breath. Notice the ground beneath your feet. The temperature in the room. The sound of your companions breathing beside you. Take a last few deep breaths in this space and when you are ready, slowly, gently – open your eyes.

The Soil and the Seeds: On Openness, Vulnerability, and Leadership

I gave this d’var at Illini Hillel on February 3rd, 2023 at a Renewal Shabbat experience in honor of my January 8th rabbinic ordination. I wanted to share something I learned about leadership during my rabbinical program with my community. This d’var was given on Shabbat Beshelach, two nights before Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.

Where do untold stories go?
Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea,
and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
if it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
if it never blooms?

Where do untold stories go? I’ve been asking this question for years in various leadership roles. We talked about it at Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, DLTI – the most formative training program I experienced in rabbinical school. Sometimes leading means we “tell the stories communities need to hear, instead of the stories we want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s an honor to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch, crack, and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow. 

I built a life out of soil and I like to think I’m good at it. I am soil when I train and empower students to lead, when I facilitate grief groups, and when I serve as a mentor. Until DLTI, I thought I made great soil because I am comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, over time I learned that while I’m open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. The stories I share are curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they play in others’ stories. I share when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s a way of being a leader, but it’s not vulnerability.

At DLTI, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In labs, our teachers offered feedback on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell, showing a hint of their own stem. We learned to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders are the soil, but we are also in the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but more than I had in the past.

In a conversation with one of my DLTI teachers, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try this vulnerability thing. I planned to tell a story that had been longing for soil at a Saturday night open mic, a story that truly made me feel vulnerable.

Saturday night arrived, and every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and beautiful, vulnerable stories bloomed all over the sanctuary.  However, I noticed that the kahal was worn out from all the emotion – a few people left, and those left in the room were drained. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell. So when it was my turn, I shared a story that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift people up. The tone was right on. Afterward, my teacher congratulated me, knowing I made the decision to share something lighter in lieu of vulnerability: “That was davvenen leadership,” he said. It was, and I was proud.

…until I was sad. Devastated. I figured I was just tired at the end of a long day and a long week. But where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me.  When I felt tears well up during a song circle later that night, I realized that 1am was not the best time to analyze my feelings, and I went to bed. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.

But I wasn’t. A friend noticed, and we walked to a private space where I explained everything. My friend acknowledged that I made the right choice the night before, and then pointed out that this moment was different. She invited me to share the story I needed to tell. I hesitated, but she meant it. I let the seed crack open.

When I finished, I felt lighter. I learned an important lesson about vulnerability that day. I learned I could plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” Or as an alternative, I learned to notice my need to share in moments when I can’t, and to honor that need by sharing with a friend later. 

This question came up for me again at Hillel last fall. When a friend was in the ICU after an overdose, I wanted a morning prayer minyan for my friend’s healing. Progressive in-person minyanim aren’t regularly accessible here, so I figured I’d find a random one online. When Carly suggested I invite students I am close with to pray with me the next day, I was nervous. Should I be that vulnerable? Was this a story I needed to tell or a story the kahal needed to hear? When is it ok to ask the community I’m leading to show up for me, the leader? I decided to try it, I’m glad I did, and I’m grateful to those who joined me in prayer that day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes leaders have to find support outside the community or outside the moment, like I did at DLTI. Other times it’s good to be vulnerable with those you are leading, like I was last fall. It’s hard to know the difference, but I’m learning every day. 

We celebrate the leadership of Moses in this parsha – a reluctant leader whose brother Aaron had to help him share his story. Tu b’Shevat is on Monday, celebrating not only trees above ground, but seeds buried in soil, a generative darkness that encourages growth. In honor of this parsha and holiday, I invite you to notice your own opportunities to lead, grow, and lean into vulnerability this week. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I continue to learn, even soil needs soil sometimes. Shabbat Shalom.