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What I Did On My Sabbatical

I built an ark.

Don’t worry!  It is not the 40 days and nights of flooding kind of ark!  It is the hold-the-Torah-scroll, house-our-sacred-story kind of ark.

Before I tell you more about it, there is more to it than simply, “I spent my month off in the garage making sawdust.”

I approach my sabbatical time with gratitude, reverence and intention.  It is not vacation.  It is time that you entrust me to use to help me be a better rabbi.  For me to realize that goal, I have found that I need to spend this gift of time quite purposely to tend to my physical and spiritual well being.  It is not so easy, however, to always distinguish between the two … they integrate and flow into the other.

Our Shabbat morning service begins by honoring these ways we live and engage in the world.  One prayer acknowledges the part of us that is physical and the following prayer acknowledges part of us that is spiritual.  The one that follows lists the ‘miracles’ out there in the world we may encounter as physical/spiritual beings. With this model in mind I went about some internal and external crafting …

I designed this month of sabbatical time for some ‘inner’ crafting and ‘outer’ crafting – with the awareness of how the physical and spiritual often inhabit the same moment and place,    I carved out my mornings to focus on ‘tending to the spiritual.’  Knowing, for me, that the physicality of running, the motions of tai chi, the stretching of yoga and the breathing of mindfulness meditation would be important parts of that tending to spirit.   I had started on the ark project late last spring, and it seemed to fit into the general heading ‘tending to the physical.’ Knowing, as well, that the experience of woodworking has always been settling and grounding for that not-so-physical part of me.

Back to the ark that I was building …  Micah has two beautiful arks.  We use one that was built about 12 years ago (crafted by Cliff Whitehouse) for use in Park Hill Congregational Church’s large sanctuary.  It now resides in our Mikdash/Chapel.  Temple Micah has used our other Ark for 35 years.  When Micah sold the building it owned in 1977, they could not take the ark because it was built into the sanctuary.  So, a new ark was built by Denver craftsman, Tom Pearce, for Temple Micah.  We use it now when we use Park Hill United Methodist Church’s large sanctuary for High Holydays, B’nai Mitzvah and other heavily attended services.  Not only is this ark beautiful, but it is also big … and takes at least 3 or 4 people to move it.  When Micah lived at Park Hill Congregational Church this large ark was moved regularly for more than 2 decades from one sanctuary to the other before the 2nd ark was built for use in their large sanctuary.  The ark that resided in the PHCC’s main sanctuary had a nice little corner behind the pulpit to be stored.  When we moved to PHUMC we anticipated having a similar arrangement, but the layout and demands of the space are different.  We have had to reinstitute the the practice of moving our big, beautiful ark on and off the pulpit after each time we used the large sanctuary.

With deep appreciation for the way the large ark has served us the past 4 decades, I carefully  began designing a new ark that would work in our new space.  It needed to be an ark that would fit in the doorways and hallways of this great old building and move more easily up and down stairs and in and out of the sanctuary.

Beyond its functionality, I wanted a piece that while needing to be smaller, still felt like it was filling that large space.  The design of the doors is intended to have a sense of movement or even emanation – to address that sense of space and draw attention to the Tree of Life that emanates from within the ark.  Each side is constructed of four panels to suggest the 4 worlds or realms in which we reside, as taught by our mystic sages. I used two kinds of wood – maple and cherry – to reflect this dynamic interplay of body and soul, physical and spiritual.

The ark in any synagogue can be a safe and beautiful, practical and inspiring place to keep our Torah scrolls.  Beyond its utility to hold the scroll and artistic expression, the ark symbolizes something beyond the physical.  The ark we see in the sanctuary or Mikdash holds the physical scroll of the Jewish sacred story. . Each of these points us toward another ‘ark’ … the ‘ark’ that is the lives we craft that serve as a sacred encasement of our individual sacred stories.  The ark is not just a holy, secure and pretty place to hold the Torah scroll … it reminds us to also to honor the ‘stories’ that fill our lives.  I hope that as we use this ark to house our Torah scrolls, we will also be mindful of the sacred stories that reside in the holy ‘arks’ that we craft each and every day of our lives.

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