Perhaps my favorite part of our Temple Emanu-El sanctuary (aside from the good people who gather there) are the doors to the Ark. From the congregational seats, you can see the shapes and colorful garb of the Torah scrolls protected by the doors’ intricate metal adornments. Each door has six separate panels, with an image that represents one of the B’nei Yisrael’s 12 tribes, each one’s name scripted in Hebrew cursive… Asher…Nephtali…Benjamin.
Some have said that the panels, strung together, resemble Jacob’s ladder (from his dream in Genesis 28). This would make sense as your eye is carried to the top of the ark doors, to the hanging Ner Tamid, representing the eternal soul of the Jewish people, which is encased in an image of Jacob wrestling with the angel. This is how he gains the name “Israel”, and from there we inherit his spiritual DNA.
Each image on the sliding ark doors, contained inside its panel, is taken from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, which means “and he lived.” This parashah tells of Jacob’s final days (as well as his son, Joseph), and his last words to his sons. Knowing that his time was near, Jacob calls in all of his sons, and blesses each one. The ark door panels reflect each son’s blessing from their beloved father, and our patriarch.
For instance, Judah is like a lion, and Dan like a serpent ready to strike his enemies. Zebulon will thrive with ships, and Issachar will (engage in Torah) with donkey-like perseverance.
The other sons get ‘blessings’ that seem more like curses; but each one’s attributes (and perhaps destiny) is captured for us to see. This was not a perfect family. There were real challenges, and, profound lapses of judgement with very real consequences that all of them had to bear. But, our rabbis note, that despite all of this, the brothers all come to their father’s death-bed together, and together, gather by his side to be with him as he passed.
When I look at our Sanctuary ark doors, I’m reminded of the stories that go with them. And they draw out of me a sense of pride, and sadness, and awe. Pride that we continue a story that is thousands of years old. Sadness because life can be hard, and people are complicated, especially in families. Awe, because I know that we all are part of something great, and amazing, that links us not only to a common history, but to a shared destiny.
In front of these ark doors we have named babies, and bar/bat mitzvahed teens. We have married couples and buried loved ones. We have prayed, we have learned, we have sung, and we have cried.
Those ark doors are the backdrop for who we are as a people, and the joys (and sorrows) that mark so many Jewish lives.
Come join us tomorrow night (and every Friday night at 7:30pm) for communal worship. You are part of this story, and your presence is always both requested, and very much appreciated.