We’re taught that the Torah is a record of Israel’s encounters with God. We’re taught that the scroll contains nothing less than divine revelation. We sing about and celebrate Torah as an eitz chayim, a tree of life.
So if you had never studied Torah — if you hadn’t had the chance to read it and were diving into it for the very first time — what would you expect to find when you did?
You might expect to find reflections on the mysteries of creation — and so you’d be pleased to read the stories at the beginning of Genesis.
You might expect to find wisdom and insight on how to lead an ethical life; how to be an upstanding citizen of the planet — and so you might find satisfaction in the Ten Commandments or the Holiness Code; in passages that tell us we are all created in the divine image, that we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.
Perhaps you’d have really lofty expectations and hope that the scroll might reveal the meaning of life — and so, while you might be disappointed to find there’s no verse that begins: “Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor: Zeh ha-ikkar shel hechayyim… God spoke to Moses saying: The essence of life is…,” you still might turn to the stories of Abraham answering God’s call to take a journey of faith, of Moses stopping by the burning bush, of Miriam leading the women in song… and you might find glimpses of what you’re looking for.
What I think is safe to say is that if you’ve been taught all your life that Torah is a wellspring of spiritual nourishment, “a tree of life to those who hold it fast,” and then you read the Torah portion we have this week (two portions, actually), then you would most likely be sorely disappointed.
For what’s in this week’s double portion? Rabbi Ruth Adar explains: “We are reading the final report of a construction project, [the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle]. Everything is ‘spec’ed out,’ so that we know not only exactly how many ounces of gold, silver, and copper [went into the building], but also about the minute details of embroidery on the priests’ robes. The whole thing is about as exciting as a corporation’s annual report. Our eyelids droop; we space out.”
We open the text expecting to find traces, if not of God per se, then at least of godliness. Yet what we find is an exceedingly long and intricate list of details. But God is in the text, and so the lesson of portions such as these must follow:
God is in the details.
We’re more familiar with the saying: “The devil is in the details.” Not a Jewish saying, to be sure — we have angels in our tradition, some who are adversaries, but no devil. Yet we understand the concept implicitly: Try as hard as you will, but if you don’t pay attention to the details, they’ll get you.
Think about keeping kosher: One can buy two set of dishes, have two refrigerators, use two different sinks. But if you’re cooking a dairy soup in a dairy pot on the dairy side of your kitchen, and a meat spoon falls in… Well, you’re not eating that soup. The devil is in the details.
Or think about the next holiday on the calendar, Passover: It’s not enough to clear the cereal and crackers out of the pantry, scour the kitchen floor, and vacuum the couch cushions. We’re supposed to go hunting for crumbs so small they require a candle to be seen and a feather to sweep. The devil is in the details.
But asserting that “God is in the details” flips the paradigm. It tells us that details are not just there to trip us up; they’re opportunities to raise us up. That it’s not only lofty ideas that can lift our spirits higher.
Think of a condolence note. Unfortunately, most of us have been in a position to receive them in our lives. The first thing we know to be true about a condolence note? It means the world that someone took the time to write us one. That they spent a few minutes thinking of us, looked up our address, found an envelope and a stamp. “God is in the details.”
But think about the notes themselves: Sometimes people write what amount to grand theological statements: “She’s in a better place;” “At least now he’s with loved ones he missed so much.” They write these ideas with love and the very best of intent; maybe thinking if they don’t have anything profound to share then why share anything at all. However, other notes will come and they’ll include our loved one’s name rather than simply referencing our “loss”. They’ll share a favorite story about our loved one. They’ll tell what they’ll remember about them most and how it makes them feel. Both notes are meaningful, but which brings more comfort and consolation? “May God console you among all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem,” we say — and God, as well as God’s consolation, is in the details.
“God is in the details” means we need to train our eye not just to look big, but look small. There’s an incredible planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC — Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. And in one of their programs, you sit back in a comfy chair in the Fulldome Theater and the view above zooms out from our night sky to the solar system to the galaxy to far, far beyond. The feeling of the vastness of the universe is almost overwhelming, and however far it expands, even infinitely, God is certainly there. But “God is in the details” means that God is also found, and maybe even more intimately felt, when we train our eyes to look not just up, but down; not just out, but in.
In Tot Shabbat, Ms. Robin sings a song: “God is everywhere and God is one.” And before she does, she’ll ask the kids: “Where is God?”
“God is in this room (KKBE’s Boardroom)!”, someone might say. Great! Where? In the Ark, in the Torah, in the pictures of people who assumed leadership roles in our congregation for over 270 years. God is in the details.
“God is in us!” Great! Where? In our eyes, in our hearts, in our listening ears, and our “I-love-you”-saying mouths. In our arms that gently hug our little sister or brother, or our hands that squeeze a colorful stuffed Torah. God is in the details.
“Outside!” Great! Where? In the sun, in the clouds, in the trees, in a rainbow. Or if you were my son as a preschooler: “In the denticles of a black tipped reef shark by Folly Beach.” He’s always seemed to know that God is in the details.
“God is in the details” is a call to heighten our awareness. It’s a muscle that needs exercise. We try and help our children hone their skills in Tot Shabbat and Religious School — but the truth is we all need practice.
As I write these words, I’m sitting outside on a beautiful day. The sun is shining. There’s not a cloud in the sky. The temperature is that most rarified experience: So perfect that, until I pay attention, I don’t even notice it.
And so I do. I pay attention.
What I might have first described as a still, quiet day, I now realize is filled with sound. Bird’s sing, not all the same — one high pitched, staccato; another soft and slow; still another deeper, stronger, bolder. I hear squirrels making, well, their unique squirrel sound. When I pay attention, I realize there really is a full symphony around me, and while words fail to convey the full range of what I hear, my ears take it all in.
As I pay attention, I realize there’s a rainbow of color out here, as well. A bright red cardinal darts around — a pop of color between green leaves, then a streaking flash as it passes from bush to bush. Orange leaves mingle among green on the bush closest to where I sit. A yellow butterfly flits by literally at the moment I begin to type yellow. Green dominates the landscape, but ranges from light to dark, bright to dull. And the sky could not be more blue if paint cans were spilled in the heavens. (Maybe they were.)
All but the very tops of the trees around me stand still, yet the occasional leaf — orange or brown or green or gold — will gently float to the ground. Unlike the force with which leaves are made to tumble down in the fall, it’s as though these leaves, having lasted until spring, now delight in their independence, letting go of their own accord and lazing their way to the ground.
And how do I feel having taken a few moments to heighten my awareness of the world around me. I pay attention to that too and note that I feel calm, more serene. I feel fuller than I did before, as though the fullness of what I’ve observed around me has somehow been brought within. I feel my soul stretching. As I look back around me I’m struck now by the play of light and shadow. I see the sight of tree trunks against the backdrop of a wooden fence, and note the interplay of God’s creation and humanity’s creation from that which God created. I feel my mind and my heart and my spirit expand with the possibility of limitless revelations in just my back yard. I feel a sense of God’s infiniteness, because “God is in all the details.”
And so I’m grateful for this Shabbat’s Torah portions. For their invitation, not to lose the forest, but to pay a bit more attention to the trees.
As our prayerbook says:
Let me learn to pause, if only for this day.
Let me find peace on this day.
Let me enter into a quiet world this day.Mishkan T’filah
And this Shabbat let us find You, O God, in the gift and blessing of details.