Being Mindful Brings Us Closer To The Divine

There I was preparing for Shabbat dinner, chopping my sweet potatoes, and listening to the On Being podcast as Krista Tippett interviewed Thich Naht Hahn. It was a conversation that had been recorded in the early years of her podcast and was replayed this week in memory of this incredible spiritual leader and teacher who died January 22, 2022.  I was only a few minutes into the program when I heard him speaking about mindfulness and the importance of being present in everything that we do. Suddenly, I began to laugh out loud to myself, feeling the irony of listening to a talk on mindfulness as I mindlessly prepared my Shabbat meal.

With that realization, I turned off the show and really began to focus on my sweet potatoes. The bright orange hue in varying shades, the thin brown peel, and the blemishes that needed to be excised, the entire sweet potato became my focus. Captivated by the rhythmic sound I made with each cut, as if I was hearing what the word “crisp” would sound like if I was trying to explain it in sounds rather than words. Feeling the dig of the large knife in my palm creating pressure and indentations, as I pressed down hard on the flesh, cutting the slices into bite-size pieces. 

I must admit, I have never paid that much attention to my chopping before. While I was able to stay in that space for a minute or two, soon enough my mind began to wander…How am I going to prepare them? What spices should I use? What else should I make to accompany them? I could notice my “monkey mind” doing what our minds do, jumping from one thought to another in a matter of seconds. The mindfulness teachings of Thich Naht Hahn took on deeper meaning as I tried to stay totally present in the moment, bringing myself back to my senses again and again, experiencing my food prep from a different vantage point.

It is with this experience that I came to our Torah portion, Terumah, which opens up with God instructing Moshe to build a mishkan, tabernacle. My reading of the parasha this year was different than in years past, infused with my mindfulness Shabbat food prep. I confess that I usually read the list of the items which are to be included in the building of the mishkan and the painstaking details with which they are to be used, quite cursorily (Exodus 25:3-7: gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood, oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense, lapis and other stones for setting), despite my astonishment of the detailed construction manual. 

In Exodus 25:2, we read that each person is to give according to how their heart moves them, essentially the Israelites are to make a freewill donation to build the tabernacle. The 15th century Italian commentator, Sforno, explains that no person could give a monetary donation, rather, they had to donate the individual items that would be used to build the mishkan…which makes me wonder how the Israelites chose their donations? 

I like to imagine our ancestors pausing as they looked at their stones about to become holy property or taking a last sniff as they offered up a scent to be used as part of the ketoret. Might they have glanced a bit longer at the striation and coloration in their acacia wood? Did they run their fingers through the linen or goats’ hair before they offered up their donation? 

The idea of mindfully and generously choosing what they would donate to the mishkan helps me better understand the verse that follows the list of donation items in which God says, And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you–the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings–so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:8-9). God promises to dwell among the Israelites and provide an in-depth building manual from all of the donations. The Hebrew interestingly tells us that the Holy One will dwell in the people, not in the mishkan, as we might have expected.

The presence of God will dwell inside the people, the ones who generously and I’d like to believe, mindfully offered up their valuable possessions. Being mindful and living in the present moment allows us to notice more deeply the multitude of blessings that we have in our own lives. Whether it is our ability to use our senses to experience the world or our capability for resilience and strength in the midst of challenging times, when we rest into the present moment, we gain what I like to call an “observer perspective,” one that offers us distance to see life from a larger vantage point. It is in this distance that we can be graced with the potential to move through the peaks and valleys of our lives with greater ease. 

When we reside in a mindful space with another–be it inanimate or animate–we take in the world and its elemental beauty in a profound and beautiful way, bringing us toward a portal for encountering the Divine. Despite the great challenge of regularly staying mindful, I continue to re-mind myself that mindfulness is a practice, something that we are invited to return to day after day, minute after minute. By paying close attention to the details of our lives and offering them up in a generous, mindful way, we, too, may be gifted to feel the Divine’s presence dwelling within us.

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