Incantations and Incarnations

It is overwhelming. There is so much labor, so much instruction, so very much to do. Every sentence is another job; every verse another obligation. It is hard to read; difficult to approach.

We are in the midst of Torah portions that describe it all: the Tabernacle, its furnishings, the priests’ clothing, investiture.  What’s more, we will read it a second time at the end of the book of Exodus. Why?  In part because eyleh shemot, these words are – so often – words of magic and power.

Give it time and give it sound. Read the texts of Parsha Terumah and Parsha Tetzaveh aloud and you can hear what’s going on: One incantation follows another. Like any incantation, these have formulas: “They shall make…,” “they shall take…,” “there shall be…” The ark, overlaid with gold inside and out. The menorah, with all its botanical markers. The ephod woven of gold, sky-blue, dark red, and crimson. The belt stitched in gold, sky-blue, dark red and crimson.

The incantations are palpable. They evoke the physical. There is a surfeit of doing, creating, forming, making. The scent of blood and incense, the sound of tiny bells, the sight of gems and precious metals – these passages are rich with imagery, with action. The Israelites sew, hammer, engrave. Rabbenu Moshe immerses his elder brother; slaughters animals, daubs blood on the bodies of his brother and nephews.

It’s all part of a beautiful magic spell. We must use these colors, those stones, this fine metal, that sort of cloth. Everything is specified; everything is defined. And it all comes with meaning, with light, with nefesh (life). Aaron will put his hands on our sacrifice and carry our names on his heart.

God guarantees results. Do these things and I will make my Presence felt. There I will meet with you. There I will speak with you. I will sanctify; I will consecrate; I will abide. I, the Lord, your God. And through it all, it is not in the sanctuary, but in the people where God hopes to abide. Chapter 25: 8: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Or, one could translate, “that I may dwell within them.”

The work was, after all, holy work. Each small step in this human version of creation is part of a great and holy song. Can we imagine the cherubim stitched into the curtain? Who knows what the ephod looked like? Who can explain the significance of each stone as it once must have been?

No matter. The incantation is enough.

Who among us has not followed ornate procedures of our own to evoke power? Who has not walked ever so carefully over the cracks in the sidewalk, counted to mysterious numbers and back again, engaged in private rituals, spoken secret phrases? We are all magicians, conjuring divinity of some kind. Many of us hope that our incantations will grant us God’s counsel, God’s presence.

We conjure each day because we need more power than we have. We deal with the mundane, the ordinary. There are simple aggravations: How can I finish the list of tasks? There is deep, terrible pain. My mother’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse; she can’t sing Yiddish with me any more.

An incantation would be nice. A magic spell, to evoke the comfort, the content, the peace we long for.

The Israelites worked with sacred intentions. As we can, or must. Making the beds, finishing the project, cutting a deal. When we do our many labors with all the skills and wisdom of our hearts, we create an incantation, a magical connection to something beyond ourselves.

The Ba’al Shem Tov says: “One flutter of an eyelash for God’s sake makes the creation of the whole world worthwhile.”

There is an incantation in the work of our lives. We are all dressing the priests, making the offering, lighting the eternal flame. We do these things trusting that our work, whatever it may be, will be as holy as our intent.

No matter who we are and what we believe, this magic is worth doing.

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2 Replies to “Incantations and Incarnations”

  1. They needed that, the Israelites that is. They were in the Sinai Peninsula, a forbidding and desolate place that grew little, not even edible products. They needed a God of majesty and awe, who took upon himself their precious things as a central focus of beauty and color. They were left with nothing but themselves to offer for the next 40 years. That Tabernacle wasn’t enough, though; we want to take back our part of it to make our own Tent of Meeting for the world to see. Can we ever completely let go of the desire to be powerfully meaningful? Will we ever be able to say, it is enough?

  2. Agasin, you have written about the need for everyone to find a way to be useful and meaningful in this world. Sometimes it is very difficult to convey, but you do it every time! Thank you!Carol Schmidt Concord

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