Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Parashat Terumah, Part III / Remembering Sam

The Project is designed to provide full-time employment for hundreds: there will be design teams; there will be manufacturers; there will be assemblers; there will be watchers and guarders; there will be maintenance crews round the clock; there will be dissassemblers and transporters. The various components of the Project will be fabricated in a variety of off-site locations, providing opportunities for local industry. The Project will be financed entirely by its creators. The Project will be installed in such a way as not to disturb the environment. When the Project has been fully erected, those walking inside the Project will experience a sense of quiet joy, of oneness with the environment. The Project gives voice to the ultimate democratic expression of the equality of all. The Project will embrace all who enter into it with its gently overwhelming sense of spirituality and Oneness. Once the components have been fabricated, and the framework set up, the fabric curtains will be hung in place and the Project will be completed. The people will then be able to enter the Project. The Project is a gift to the entire community.

The foregoing paragraph sounds like a precis of Parashat Terumah. For those who believe there is no such thing as coincidence...

... on Saturday 12 February -- Shabbat Terumah -- 7,500 saffron curtains were unfurled in Central Park, marking the completion, inauguration and opening of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates. The descriptive sentences above are paraphrased from Christo and Jeanne-Claude's website describing The Gates.

On Sunday, 13 February, we were on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a hesped -- a memorial, marking the end of shloshim, the initial thirty-day mourning period for Sam Kayman -- a friend too close to myself in age for me to dwell for long on the topic.

After we left Ansche Hesed Synagogue on West 100th Street, we walked down to Central Park in the incredibly beautiful and chill and sun-struck amazing afternoon. As we came within sight of Central Park West, the orange frames of The Gates rose into view. The rectangular saffron curtains hanging from them made associations with Tibetan Buddhism inescapable, an impression that was greatly enhanced by the peaceful atmosphere cast over the Park and its thousands of strollers-by, by the combination of the blessedly beautiful weather and the undulating rows of The Gates, its colors a hint of earth and autumn -- or of returning spring, for the red in the root and stem is first to come as the earth revives, then last to vanish in the tips of the leaves before they fall and turn to mud and mulch and dust -- and evocations of the Dalai Lama's visit to the Park, of quiet murmured chanting, of incense, of meditation. The Park looked like a vast lamasary -- or perhaps like a reverse lamasary, where the people were in assorted colors and textures, while the structures were all of a piece, uniform and in majestic repose, each wrapped in flowing saffron.

According to their website -- I am paraphrasing, as I am not sure what information on their website is copyrighted; I urge you to explore for yourself at http://christojeanneclaude.net -- the purpose of their gigantic environmental works is to use one part of an environment temporarily, using it as an installation site for an artwork which brings us to view the entire environment differently. A handy definition of Art is: the act of putting a frame / framework around something, thereby making it unique.

In Parashat Terumah, Moshe is told to frame empty space with the golden statues of the Keruvim atop the Aron. Indeed, the Aron, standing at the center of the Kodash Kodashim, is at the heart of the Mishkan, and the space atop the Aron is the heart of the heart of the Mishkan. The Mishkan is a vast undertaking of craftsmanship and community cooperation whose whole purpose is to frame the empty space of the Midbar, the wilderness, drawing our focus to a place which -- because we placed a frame around it -- becomes a conduit for holiness.

The holiness was always there. We needed to create a framework, and a frame, to bring our own focus to it.

Like The Gates, the Mishkan was meant to be temporary. Unfortunately, the planned brief sojourn in the Midbar turns into a forty-year stay, most of that time spent with the Mishkan standing in one spot. The fact of something being by its nature temporary may not be sufficient to prevent it from becoming permanent. Or semi-permanent. A symbol of Those Who Have Stayed On Too Long. It is tempting to say that, with the Mishkan in our midst, we continue to dwell in G-d's blessing. Those who think that is all right should contemplate that, for thirty-eight years in the Midbar, G-d ceased to talk to Moshe, and their dialogue only resumed on the eve of our entry into the Land of Canaan. This should give those who fervently wish to build a third Beit HaMikdash at least a moment's pause.

The Gates are scheduled to come down after sixteen days. On their website, Christo and Jeanne-Claude mention that the standard duration of their envronmental artworks is fourteen days -- but they extended The Gates to sixteen days because New York is their home, and they want to make a special gift to the City and its people.

There is much to be said for not overstaying one's welcome. Imagine Moshe, the tragedy of waiting for thirty-eight years, not sure whether G-d would ever speak to him again. Waiting every day in his tent for the visit that never comes.

Sam Kayman was something like that too. In his way, Sam struggled to bring holiness into the world. Sam was a scientist who devoted himself to AIDS research. To say "In his way" may seem a faint and invidious compliment. What I mean was: there are those of us who do not know what to do with our lives. Who do not know what Our Way is. Sam was not one of those. His Way was the way of dedication. His dedication was to total honesty -- a critical, and unfortunately rare, quality for a scientist -- and to making a better world.

At the Hesped, one of Sam's recent papers was presented. Did you know that there are currently over thirty AIDS vaccines in clinical trials? I did not. That is bad news. Actually, very bad news. It means that we really don't know what we ae looking at. If we did, there would be one vaccine, and we would merely be tweaking and refining it.

Sam divided his life and work into a few compartments. His Work in his family was to support and push his wife and son to succeed in the world, to be realized human beings in their own right. His Work in the community was to make whatever contribution was needed. Sam was known as someone who would Get Things Done. And as a terrific cook.

Sam's Work in the lab was to search tirelessly, to contribute to making the definitive difference that would eradicate AIDS. And certain breakthroughs have come, even in the weeks since his passing. But there is still so much further to go. Sam, we needed you.

There is a Tosafot in the gemara in Chagigah that says that Rabbi Akiva agrees it is possible for a person who died before their time to give their remaining years to someone else.

How does this happen?

And what does the famous gemara in Rosh HaShanah mean when it says G-d sits with the Book of the Living and the Book of the Dead opened before G-d?

We know this gemara very well, because the concept is talked over and over in the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. And these two holidays are really about preparing for death. Which is truly the only proper way we can prepare for life.

But does G-d need TWO books? By definition, if you are not in the Book of the Living, then you are...?

But the gemara is getting at something far more profound. What we did last Sunday was to give over our own thoughts and feelings about Sam, give over to one another, to his wife, to ourselves all the funny and loving and touching and amazing things that Sam was and did. In this way, Sam is with us still. And each year on the anniversary of his passing, when his wife and son stand up to say Kaddish, it will be a palpable reminder that Sam is with us still.

Because the Torah's message, the message of the Jewish tradition, is that Sam is still alive, in so many meaningful ways.

The Book of the Living and the Book of the Dead both lie open before G-d because, even after we die, G-d continues to judge us. G-d judges us by the way our life has effected other people. G-d judges us by the way our children behave, by the way we are remembered by friends and loved ones. Does someone set up a foundation in our name? That is a continuation of our life. Does our child excel in Torah learning? In the arts? Academically? As a loving child to the remaining parent, and spouse, and parent? And contributing member of society? All these are part of how we continue to shape and change the world, even in death. And the judging goes on.

When G-d judges Sam -- now, alas, in the Book of the Dead -- the judgment will be positive. Sam's tireless and selfless and so completely, completely honest dedication to his research -- to making the world a better place -- will one day BS"D bring about a result.

Good-bye, Sam. We love you. We will always miss you.

* * * * * *

The Mishkan will stand in the wilderness for almost forty years -- and during the time of G-d's silence, Moshe's exile will be unbearable. And yet, through this personal agony of waiting, Moshe will continue his task as the leader of the Jewish people, a people still in formation. He will complete his part in moulding this rag-tag gaggle of runaway slaves into the People of the Torah, the people whose destiny is to be a nation of priests. And then the silence will break. On the eve of the realization of G-d's promise, the entrance into the Land of Canaan, Moshe will die. On the seventh day of the month of Adar -- which was yesterday. His work is completed, though the task is far from over. The Mishkan will be taken down and the desert will revert to trackless wilderness, out of which we shall march into the Land.

After sixteen days, the floating and beautiful and serene curtains will be furled, the gates will be disassembled and recycled, and Central Park will return to its own space, its space once again will be differentiated by its own configuration.

After Sam left the world, there was a pile of clothing no one would ever again wear, a laboratory bench that would never be used in quite the same way. Cooking pots that would never be handled with quite the same care. A family and a community that will never replace him.

But the Mishkan will be reflected, first in the Bet HaMikdash -- the Temple at Jerusalem -- and then in the eternal blueprint we carry, the design that we read aloud over and over again each year when we come to these Parshiyot. The words remind us that it is the Mishkan we carry within each of us that truly matters; that it is our own national and personal destiny and gift and burden to repair this broken world. And as long as we read those words, as long as Torah remains in the world, so long does Moshe remain with us. Our Teacher.

Central Park, and New York City -- and in a small and beautiful and meaningful way, the whole world -- will be forever changed by the vision and generosity of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. We will never be able to wlk through the Park again without remembering the stunning serenity of The Gates.

Thank you, Christo. Thank you, Jeanne-Claude.

And Rabbi Akiva was right. It IS possible to give over the unused years of a life cut too short. And one day, G-d willing, a generation of chiuldren will be born, will live healthy lives and will make their own contribution to the World. Children who, for the moment, are not even a hope. Are barely a fearful prayer. Children who would never even come into the world if not for the work of Sam Kayman.

shabbat shalom

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