NiSh’ma: Thresholds

A simulated Talmud page with three commentators grappling with a perplexing line of midrash: “the little contains the much.”

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Leviticus Rabbah 10:9

וְאֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה הַקְהֵל אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד (ויקרא ח:ג) - אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא וְאַתְּ אוֹמֵר: "אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד"?! אֶלָּא זֶה אֶחָד מִן הַמְּקוֹמוֹת שֶׁהֶחֱזִיק מוּעַט אֶת הַמְּרֻבֶּה.

“All of Israel numbered 600,000, yet you say, ‘Assemble all of the community in the doorway of the Tent of Meeting.’ (Leviticus 8:3) Impossible, except that this is one of the places where the little contains the much.”

NiSh’ma

Steven SagerBy Steven Sager:

In order to provide witnesses for the investiture of the priests, God commanded Moses, “Assemble all of the community in the doorway of the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 8:3) Such crowding of the threshold was certainly impossible.

The ba’al ha-midrash (story master) insists that the word “all” opens things up wondrously — not to a measurable fact, but to the spacious truth of metaphor. Thresholds of consciousness, emotion, pain, and awareness offer vistas wider than their framing moments. At such thresholds, “the little contains the much”: Events deepen into experiences; moments become momentous.

On the “limen” (Latin for “threshold”), we experience liminal, transitional moments; perception crosses a threshold and a deepening awareness creates in us an expanded vision.

The ba’al ha-midrash positioned all of us — those present and those yet to be — on a threshold of religious imagination, inviting coherence, consciousness, and continuity, and allowing us be present to holiness-in-the- making that is beyond us and within us.

The ba’al ha-midrash extended this teaching to
include Jerusalem herself. Like the threshold
of the sacred tent, Jerusalem became “the little that contains the much” — always wide enough to contain those who seek her. May it be so, quickly, and in our day.

NiSh’ma

Gray MyrsethBy Gray Myrseth:

In his commentary on Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Steven Sager speaks of “liminal, transitional moments” where we can be present with “holiness-in-the-making” and encounter a spaciousness that bends the ordinary laws of physics.

When I think of the limen and the threshold, I imagine everyone standing at the edge of our communities, wondering what kind of welcome they will receive as they approach. I think of Jews of color, queer and transgender Jews, Jews with disabilities, and Jews by choice. I think of people with one Jewish parent, people who are unsure for a wide range of reasons whether they will find the right fit in any Jewish community or whether they will stand at the edges forever.

As we consider the thresholds of our homes and sanctuaries, it is my hope that we can remember that the first Tent of Meeting created by our desert ancestors was wide enough to hold every person who approached its doorway. That tent was wide enough to hold the spirit of the Holy One, who defines boundaries and binaries, and who welcomes human beings who do the same. May our own present-day Jewish spaces be as welcoming to the fullness of the Jewish people in all our queer and liminal splendor, as the Tent of Meeting was so long ago. What we find beyond the threshold will be infinitely more fabulous when we do.

NiSh’ma

Sara LuriaBy Sara Luria:

The poet John O’Donohue teaches that a threshold, from the Old English word “threscan,” is the place where one separates the wheat from the chaff. Threshing is an embodied experience of separating. Right after Moses assembles the entire community at the Tent of Meeting, he washes Aaron and his sons in preparation for their sacred roles. The mikveh ritual, an immersion in living waters, is an embodied Jewish transition ceremony that facilitates spiritual threshing. Those who immerse themselves allow what is not useful anymore to dissolve in the water, and thus they emerge lighter and more prepared for what is to come.

In the mikveh — and at the threshold to the Tent of Meeting — we are standing in a place in between what we were and what we will become. This is what Rabbi Steven Sager teaches, echoing Leviticus Rabbah, “the little contains the much.” Perhaps, each of us is the little that contains the much. Our small bodies hold vast experiences — losses, hopes, fears, love, pain, and joy. Leviticus Rabbah teaches us that all of Israel — 600,000 people — assembled to participate in transformation. Each of us is one of the 600,000. Each of us is alone as we stand in the mikveh or at a threshold.

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