Pikudei: Building a Sacred Space
This week’s reading, Pikudei, is the last one in the book of Exodus. It begins with an accounting of the materials used in the construction of the portable sanctuary and ends with God taking up residence (so to speak) within. In the middle of all of this, we read:
Thus was completed all of the work of the mishkan ohel mo’ed; the Israelites had done all that YHVH commanded to Moses. (Exodus 39:32)
This verse is unusual in that it combines two names for sacred space: mishkan and ohel mo’ed. Neither terms is all that easy to translate as the nuances of each is impossible to convey in English.
My standard translation of mishkan is “portable sanctuary” as it describes the structure’s basic function in just a few words. But the root of the word mishkan means “to dwell” or “to abide”. A more accurate (though cumbersome) translation of mishkan might be “a place for the Presence of the Sacred to abide in our midst”.
The first word of the second name (ohel) does have a straightforward English counterpart: tent. But mo’ed is trickier. The Hebrew root can mean “appointment”, “time”, “meeting place”, “congregation”, “testimony’, and “witness”. The best I can do with all of those connotations is “a tent for meeting and bearing witness to the sacred”.
If I were to combine these translations, as Pikudei does in the Hebrew, the completed structure would be called something like “a place where the Sacred abides in our midst and where we can meet and bear witness to its Presence.” I don’t know about you, but I could use a place like that.
Pikudei and the sanctuary within
My husband Bob teaches elementary school kids how to create just such a place whenever and wherever they need it. He bases his lessons on a technique developed by Dr. Mark T. Greenberg and described in Daniel Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions. Bob’s objective is to teach his students how to manage powerful feelings so that they can make good choices about how to behave.
The practice is called “doing turtle”, and it involves five basic steps. First, Bob teaches his young students to stop and be aware of their feelings. Then, he guides them to make a “shell” by crossing their arms over their chests. From there, he instructs them to close their eyes and go inside their shells and take a few deep, calming breaths. At that point, he invites them to once again check in with their feelings and to tune into to their inner wisdom. Once they’ve learned the technique, they are encouraged to practice it whenever the feel overwhelmed.
Bob invites his students to share turtle stories with him. Some are funny, some are profoundly moving, and all of them are extraordinary. These 8- and 9-year olds often display more wisdom (not to mention self control) than their elders. Some of my favorite turtle stories involve youngsters telling their parents to “do turtle” and then offering them instruction in the practice.
It seems to me that doing turtle and Pikudei’s mishkan ohel mo’ed have a lot in common. Bob has to be careful about the language he uses in public schools, but when I look at the results of his lessons, it seems clear to me that he is teaching his students to enter into the place where the Sacred abides within them, and where they can meet and bear witness to it.
It seems to me that our whole society would benefit from a regular turtle practice. Since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (and since the American election season is far from over), I think I’ll add turtle to my other contemplative practices. I can use the reminder that the sacred abides within, even when it seems so very far away.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to discover Presence that abides within you. May you remember that you can meet it there whenever you need it. And may you bear witness to its wisdom in all you do.
Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.