Earlier this week, I spoke to a VBS community member on the phone who said to me something so interesting. She said, “Rabbi, I’ve rearranged the furniture in my house half a dozen times this year.”
I took a breath. “Okay,” I said, “tell me why.”
She went on and said, “I’ve been home so long, only occasionally seeing friends from afar, and I miss the community, going to services, seeing children grow and life progress. I feel trapped in a timeless bubble. I moved the couch because I needed to feel something change.”
I think we can all relate to that. After nearly a year of lockdown so many of us feel trapped. Months of not being connected to friends and of being isolated has taken a toll on our physical and spiritual wellbeing. With so many events canceled, simchas (happy lifecycle events) postponed, graduations missed, birthdays gone by, or promotions delayed, a spiritual timelessness has set in where every day feels like every other. It’s as though the walls of human experience have closed in on us and nothing is moving forward. All we want to do is:
Before the pandemic one of the most interesting phenomena that has come to the surface over the last few years is the escape room. An escape room is a game of sorts where you and a few friends are locked into a space and have to uncover clues or solve mysteries to unlock the doors so you can get out. Some escape rooms are just that – a single room – while others are designed as whole houses or buildings. Whatever the premise or the design, the purpose is the same.
I think for many, this past year, and perhaps even longer for some, feels like an escape room. I know for some it’s the heavy feelings of being socially isolated from friends and family because of the pandemic. For others, it’s the argument you had with a friend or your partner that replays in your mind over and over, locking you into a particular moment in time. For still others, it’s the shame of a mistake or the heaviness of inadequacy that locks you into the dark places inside of your mind. For some, it’s the trauma of an accident or the death of a loved one that binds you to this space. No matter the cause, when life becomes an escape room, it feels like a spiritual puzzle and mystery where the key to unlocking your happiness is hidden.
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we find the beginnings of a plan to unlock the chains around our souls. The central theme of this week’s reading is the building of the Mishkan, or God’s House, in the desert. The Mishkan was made of wood, gold, silver, and fabrics. (Exodus 25:3-7) It had sweeping texture and color. It’s the first work of collective Jewish courage; it is daring to create something bold in their newfound freedom by fashioning art meant to be a space for the sacred. As the Torah says, “Build for me a Sanctuary, so that I might dwell among you.” (Exodus 25:8)
The purpose of the Mishkan is for the infinite and the finite to meet. It’s a place where God’s grace and love touch the messiness and brokenness of human living. While the work of the community was held just outside its opening, where disputes were settled and justice was had inside the holy chambers, judgment itself was withheld. It is inside the Mishkan where the Israelites brought their offerings to free themselves of their shame, their guilt, and to share gratitude for well-being. (Leviticus Ch.6) Unlike the escape rooms of today where the goal is to get out, the central room of God’s House is to go in. The holy purpose of the Mishkan is to meet God and escape from your pain, your shame, your loneliness, and your sorrow.
God’s escape room is meant to unlock your potential and give you back your worth. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, a mystical teacher, adds that plans for the Mishkan itself were only possible when God saw the goodness of each person, no matter what the sin. No matter how far someone has strayed, God sees the spark of goodness in you, the very one given to you at Creation, and that goodness can awaken within you to help build a home for God. (Lekutei Moharan O”H 1:4)
The purpose of building God’s Escape Room is to give you hope that even in your brokenness you have a future and that you have worthiness. God gives you space to say that you don’t have to allow fear, doubt, and depression overwhelm or define you. In this world of swarming social media where we pounce on others’ weaknesses, in a world where we are locked down and locked away from each other, the Torah reminds us you are not locked out from your relationship to God. The greatest danger coming out of this pandemic will not be further variants of COVID, not the condition of the economy or the stock market, but the condition of your soul. We might be winning the biological battle, but so many people are losing the inner battle. And while many of us want to escape each other, God reminds us that the Divine is always there, giving you the keys to God’s House so you can escape your sadness and shame. All you have to do is come home.