The irreparable Temple where Divine Presence dwells
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
The feature story on the front page of this week’s Sunday New York Times was a wrenchingly beautiful and agonizing piece by Benjamin Weiser called “Nakesha’s Demons.” Mr. Weiser chronicles the descent of Nakesha, a young, bright, promising, talented, and wicked-smart woman into the abyss of mental illness, life on New York’s streets, and finally, a morgue basement. Nakesha was the class president of her high school and a member of the National Honor Society. She went to Williams College on scholarship, won a prize for “the best scholarly work submitted by a Williams undergraduate in the field of Africana Studies” and graduated with friends, promise, and the expectation that she would be a bright light in the world.
And she was.
But she was the bright light that sat swaddled in hand me down blankets, surrounded by books, half-eaten meals in to-go containers, and plastic bags filled with the good intentions of strangers on a mid-town Manhattan sidewalk grate. Wracked with intelligence and paranoia, alternately articulate and agitated, she was proud and completely dogged by her own unhinged brain chemistry. And, even so, she was loved, adored even, cared for, and tended to by people whose hearts she moved.
This week’s Torah portions, Vayakhel and Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 – 40:38), are the fourth biblical installment that features the nascent art of “the ask.” The Israelites are in the desert, freed from slavery and oppression; and the first big order of business is for them to pool their resources and build a Mishkan, a place where the Divine Presence can dwell amongst them. The Torah asks and admonishes all “whose heart moves them” and “the wise-hearted” (yes, this is the original iteration of our community’s name Chochmat HaLev—wisdom of the heart) to gather their resources—precious metals, gemstones, fabrics and pelts, pigments and aromatic oils—and skills—artists and builders, engineers and organizers, craftspeople and construction workers—so that together they will build a spiritual home for the whole community. And amazingly, despite being in the middle of a hostile desert, they bring forth more than is needed. And the Mishkan is built, permutated, and ultimately destroyed. The Temple is a place where promise and problems, ritual and regret, hubris and humility intersect, tangle and collapse. No wonder then that the human body is likened to being a temple, a holy vessel, a dwelling place for the Divine Presence.
And no wonder that radiant Nakesha, even broken and distorted by mental illness, would garner the kindness, generosity, and concern that inspired Mr. Weiser to study her life for a year, so he could bring it to the front page of the Sunday Times. Nakesha was on the streets for over twenty years, but nothing—not psychosis or filth, stink or physical deterioration—could dull the brilliance, illumination, and goodness of her soul. She remained beloved to her college mentors, roommates, and friends; the food cart vendor who sold near her grate watched out for her, the Manhattanites who walked past her grate took notice of her, she inspired the homeless outreach workers whose help she steadily refused. These were all people whose hearts motivated them to give; the wise-hearted souls who contributed to the irreparable Temple where the Divine Presence dwelled.
No one could purchase Nakesha’s healing, no one could buy her restoration. All they could do was give. And they did, irrationally moved by the faith that no matter how thick the walls, generosity creates fissures through which holy light emits. They gave and, for a moment, a prison became a Temple.
May this Shabbat motivate our hearts to give freely, without judgment or expectation, with faith and love. May we be wise-hearted, joyful, and generous.