Shabbat VaYakhel: There But For The Grace of G*d

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד        

They made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Ex. 38.8)

Last Saturday night a 60 year old woman helping to hold space for a gathering in Normandale Park was shot to death by a white supremacist. It didn’t take long for the thought to cross my mind: there but for the grace of G*d go I. The Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance, which I convene, exists to demonstrate that people of faith accompany justice-seekers in the streets – and I’m about to reach my 60th birthday, G*d willing. 

But later I realized that the phrase is wrong. The Hesed we translate as “grace” is not about determining who lives or dies, who is lucky enough not to be killed by the bullet of a person filled with hate, or by the bombs falling from warplanes that murder one innocent or another.

No. Hesed is how we care for each other. It’s “the grace we show and the compassion that we give.” If that phrase sounds familiar, it should: HaShem declared it to be the divine essence of our path only last week, in parashat Ki Tisa. 

There is so much that is painful in our lives right now, beloveds. Evil, dominating and strong, is breaking out from Ukraine and so many other places, right down to here, in our neighborhood, in our city of Portland Oregon. Some people who are traumatized have no strength left to show grace or to feel it – which makes the instances so precious when we do find them.

Tellingly enough, in all the smoke and confusion we hear the voice of women, of mothers and of nurturing, rising up against the tide of terror. A Ukrainian woman walks directly up to a young Russian soldier, armed to the teeth against her people, and tells him as a mother to go home, despite the devastation and fear surrounding her. A Black woman in Portland Oregon speaks clarity and hope from a movement of thousands that she’s built over years of patience, despite the misogyny and racism she deals with every day.

We who are daily tempted to violent emotion need to learn this: that we have the incredible healing power of hesed to share, and in this way, we with the grace of G*d can go.

In this week’s parashah, we see them: the women at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah is indefinite about what their tasks are, but Midrash helps us understand:

The women asked themselves: “What contribution can we make to the sacred place?” They arose, took their mirrors, and brought them to Moses. When Moses saw them he angrily asked, “What purpose do these mirrors serve?” The Holy Blessed One called out to Moses: “Moses, do you mistreat them because of these? These very mirrors produced the hosts in Egypt. Take them and make a basin of brass and its base for the priests, that they may sanctify the priests from it,” as it is said: The laver was made of brass, and base of brass, from the mirrors of the serving women that did service (Ex. 38:8), for they had produced all the hosts. (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 9.4)

This story is based upon another midrash in which our mothers are praised for their ability to maintain life during Egyptian slavery; by using their mirrors to flirt with their exhausted partners, they were able to keep creating new life despite the oppression of Egypt. The word which links these two stories is tzov’ot, which can mean “serve” or “hosts.” The Midrash derives from this that the women “served” by bringing into the world “hosts” of children, and they ensured the survival of the Jewish people.

Now they stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, literally, and it is they, by their work, who create access to the holy.

Jewish mysticism teaches that it is the mothering attribute of hesed that nurtures and supports life. It is quieter than bombs and guns, but in the end it is so much more powerful. May we all listen for the voice of the divine feminine within us and within the world, sharing Hesed as we are able, and showing compassion as it is needed, keeping open by our work the touch of the holy – the whole – which we all need so badly.

In memory of June Knightly, and in honor of Letha, Teressa, and all who mother Life.

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