I went to see Our Town at Actors Theatre this past week. I've seen two movie versions but never the play. As I was reading in the notes, it was, in its time, a revolutionary script. The idea that one would strip away the accoutrement of a theater to tell a universal story with depth and understanding was something that hadn't been done. Shakespeare was performed on a virtually empty stage, but this is one where the virtual walls (curtains) have been removed.
The rabbinic adaptation of the ancient Mishkan/Mikdash/Sanctuary/Temple into the Synagogue was no less revolutionary.
Instead of the tablets of the Ten Utterances (popularly known as the Ten Commandments) inside a coffin-like horizontal ark with winged divine creatures facing one another on top, we have a horizontal ark with ancient scrolls of the five books of Moses. Variations of the High Priest’s finery, described in detail in our portion, are used to clothe that heavy parchment, all the way from robe to belt to crown to breast plate to the bells which have moved from the hems of the ancient robe to the crown of the ancient scrolls.
Only the Menorah is represented in every chapel and sanctuary throughout the world in, more or less, it’s original form with the significant exception of the light it was supposed to produce unceasingly. In perhaps their most revolutionary transformation, the rabbis separated the fire from the candelabra placing it above the ark. Unlike the Menorah it could have virtually any form an artist might imagine, from the bowl of the Yarmuth Chapel to the Kristallnacht-inspired glass work of the David and Jonathan Blue Family Sanctuary.
But the most revolutionary aspect of all in the rabbinic transformation of Sanctuary to Schul was its permanence.
Imagine that every play after Our Town dispensed with scenery and even the curtains that hide the actors’ entrances and exits. Imagine that the Stage Manager was always telling us what was going on in self-conscious fashion. Perhaps occasionally we might get a more funny version, like the one in Noises Off.
Remember. The Menorah was not seen by 99% of the ancient Israelites -- only by the High Priest and perhaps some other officiating priests and those who had to move it in the desert under cover. The Israelites may have known it was always on, but never got to see it eternally lit.
In a sense, the eternal light being disconnected from the Menorah was a way for the Rabbis to cast the Stage Manager Who remains, to this day, eternally changing, eternally unknowable like the flame of a fire.
And we still walk through life, as Emily in Our Town observes, not seeing what is happening to us as it occurs.
That’s what Shabbat is for. A time to be inspired by that eternal light, that changing and unchanging representation of the Stage Manager behind the heavenly curtains, to reflect on that which has happened that week and to help us separate the wheat of experience from the chaff of wasted opportunity and, in the process, to become the finest, most refined versions of ourselves that we can be.