Torah of Witness

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“I saw the love in your eyes that day, this is what it looked like.”

This week, in Parshat Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19), we hear of G-d’s plans to build the Mishkan, a portable holy space which the Levites would end up shlepping through the desert for forty years. The details of it are mind-numbingly repetitive—even in their gold-inlaid wood and purple and blue and argamon splendor—perhaps an indication of what it means to build sacred space or sacred community: lots of little details, wash, rinse, repeat.

One word that caught my attention this time around was what the Mishkan was to be built to house. It doesn’t say “Torah” or “the tablets,” but rather הָעֵדֻת/haEdut, literally “the Witnessing,” commonly translated as “the Pact” (JPS) or “the Testimony” (Everett Fox). This Hebrew root ע–ו–ד means “to return, repeat, do again,” and an עד/eid is a witness, as you might need for a trial or a wedding. 

The connection the root has to the concept of witness has deep implications for what it means to witness: someone who is willing to reiterate what they saw, to affirm it, to repeat it back to the one being witnessed. A witness in a Jewish wedding, for instance, is thought of as a trust-keeper, not just to tell some third party, “yeah, I saw them tie the knot,” but to reflect back to the couple, perhaps at a rough moment, “I saw the love in your eyes that day, this is what it looked like.”

I’ve been doing a lot of witnessing lately. I’m currently taking a class with Tiffany in a practice called Authentic Movement, an opportunity to deeply explore the self through free association of the body moving in space while being witnessed. This last piece, I’m learning, is so important. What does it mean to be authentic while being witnessed? What I’ve experienced is that there is an observation effect, as with a photon that can be both wave or particle until you point an instrument at it. The act of being witnessed is a powerful clarification and crystallization of the unconscious in the moment, bringing up into light what had previously been in shadow.

As witness, though, I feel a special charge. In witnessing, there is great trust being put in me, to hold vulnerability and confidentiality, to behold the externalization of someone’s innermost process.

So, what is it Divine Will, however you understand that, asking us to put into the very center of our spiritual lives? What are we called to bring to the core of authentic community? Witnessing. The act of recalling ourselves and each other to our highest selves, our vulnerable truths, the ones we didn’t fully know until they were witnessed. And the only container that I know of which can hold this kind of power isn’t gold-inlaid wood and purple and blue and argamon; it’s human. It is humans coming together in belonging. May we all be blessed with that kind of authentic belonging somewhere in our lives!

Shabbat shalom.