Exodus With Water, String, and Laughter: Finding the Divine
This month, the Torah has led us on a comprehensive tour of the folk art museum of ancient Israelite desert wandering, a full accounting of the physical culture of our portable sacred space in the wilderness. The prophetic readings paired with the weekly Torah readings amplify the descriptions of the richly textured but makeshift place for the Divine among us, the mishkan or Tabernacle, with the true opulence of the first Jerusalem Temple. We, in turn, bridge a 3,000-year cultural gap from the mishkan to the present time, to discern the parallel essential elements in our spiritual lives.
In the biblical text, Betzalel, the chief artisan of the mishkan, creates a bronze laver made from women’s mirrors. As far as we know, this is a simple bowl-on-pedestal sink where the ancient priests, the kohanim, would wash to prepare for their offerings. This detail of material culture might pass by us with so many others if it weren’t for the note about its materials. One midrash connects the material origins of this washbasin to the mirrors that the women used in Egypt, as they gazed playfully at their reflections, to sexually arouse their husbands in order to bring the next generation into being even in the midst of the despair of slavery.
In the mishkan, then, as they prepared to connect with God, the kohanim would be looking beyond their lathered hands to the basin made of those mirrors, rooting their connection with the Divine in the erotic connection of Israelites with one another–perhaps preparing to seek that same kind of playful, face-to-face, beloved connection with the Divine, elevating otherwise everyday acts with a deep sense of holy purpose.
The description of the parallel basin in Solomon’s Temple–described in I Kings 7 in the Sephardic haftarot, or prophetic readings, accompanying the Torah portions Vayakhel (last week) and Pekudei (this week)–invites us into epic dimensions of human and divine connection. This basin is called ha-yam, The Sea. The Sea is a round basin cast in bronze, ten cubits (fifteen feet) across and five cubits (eight feet) high. Three hundred gourds in two rows encircle the basin as a decorative feature, and it rests on twelve bronze oxen, three facing each of the cardinal directions, hindquarters inward. The metal is about five inches thick, yet the brim is as delicate as a drinking cup, like the petals of a lily.
There is such holy chutzpah in naming this fancy sink that Hiram the bronze worker made “The Sea“–for what is the sea but our chance to encounter the Infinite? What is the sea but truly the face of the Divine, the reflection of the sky? What is the sea but the gathering place of all of us in the end, the mostly-water of our bodies flowing from all into us back into all?
To call this oversized bowl The Sea, then, is to claim our capacity for encountering the vastness of the Divine in human community, to suggest that we can create a vessel that actually brings the infinite into our midst. That bowl of epic proportions, burnished bronze holding a vast quantity of water, was in essence a giant mirror. The way oceans carry the color and mood of the sky, the way looking into a completely still lake on a clear day feels like you might actually dive into the clouds, this Sea would have brought the vastness of the sky into a finite human vessel, the heavens into a tiny corner of the earth. What is always above could also be below. We laugh at the residents of Chelm who believe they have captured the moon in a barrel of water, but we forget that they held a slice of heaven.
Mystically-inclined commentary on The Sea looks to the elements of its measurements to find reference to earth, sky, and humanity, bringing all three into contact in this singular vessel. But what does it rest on? What is the basis for holding this bit of Sea-Sky in our midst? The twelve oxen that form the base of the Sea are compared to the signs of the zodiac, the completeness of a year’s journey of our earth in relation to the vastness of the universe. This is the mirroring of the heavens in ourselves.
In our time and place, we have so much more, and so much less, than The Sea. Our lives are full of unfathomable opulence compared to those who would have seen it–the water we collect from above flows into our very homes by the turn of a faucet. Our physical connection with that flow of bounty is unprecedented. And yet, our tendency to recognize that we are actually coming face to face with the infinite in our small personal sink-seas is very limited. Our task is to build in ourselves, in our communities and in our minds, the Seas of our time, where the water below reflects the water above, and our gaze laughingly meets that of the Divine.
At a mikveh, a facility for ritual immersion, we dare to claim that the waters of tehom, the original Deep, are gathered in a given nondescript building, in the pool of the mikveh, which becomes a Sea. But we don’t need water to find our Seas. Look no further than the ritual fringes, the tzitzit, on the corners of a tallit:
Rabbi Meir taught: How is techelet [the blue of tzitzit] different from all the other colors? Techelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like the throne of glory, as it is written, “Under God’s feet is like a sapphire brick, pure as the essence of the heavens” (Exodus 24:10), and it is written, “The throne appears like sapphire stone” (Ezekiel 1:26). (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 17a)
Even the white string of the tzitzit carries the memory of the blue string. The referred power of that blue is enough to suggest that when we look at those knotted strings, we see the Divine. The fabric of a tallit folds up small-–a garment is the ultimate portable object–and yet, unfurled it becomes a personal Sea, a reflection in human fabrication of what is above, allowing us to see the Infinite.
Finally, we find Seas in friendship, in family, and in community, when we, like the Israelites in Egypt, gaze on each other with playful love, seeing the mirroring of our own laughing eyes in another’s. We don’t need the reflective bronze intermediary to show us hope in difficult times. With nothing more than water, string, and laughter, in our own times and places, we too can encounter the Divine in our midst.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbi and educator in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, she has served as assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation (MN) and of Congregation Kehillath Israel (MA).