“Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”

My teacher Levi Lauer uttered that memorable line years ago, and I hear him saying it as I ponder the blizzard. Most of the time when I teach about Parshat Teruma, I think about the ways in which building the mishkan is a symbol: a model for community-building, a statement about the importance of voluntarism, a metaphor for work and labor. The mishkan is all of these things. And the Jewish tradition’s elaboration of them as symbols is beautiful and inspiring.

But then a blizzard hits, and I’m reminded that, at root, the mishkan is a physical object, and building it is a bodily activity.  I look outside and see two feet of snow (already reinforced by the city snowplow) and wonder how I’m going to shovel out of it, and where I’m going to put all that snow. And I wonder when I’m going to do this, as the wind continues to howl, making shoveling both impossible and pointless.

Like many, I spent last night gathering flashlights and firewood, in case the power went out (thankfully, so far, it hasn’t). And I worried about what we would do if we lost heat and electricity in the middle of the night. I projected a mental image of huddling up in blankets and pillows around the fireplace—but when we had tried to light a fire to roast marshmallows earlier in the evening, the downdraft through the chimney was so strong that the fire didn’t last. I thought of my friend Shelly, a homeless man who used to live in Evanston, and wondered where he was during the blizzard, hoping he was inside.

In his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguished between Adam I and Adam II. The Adam of Genesis 1 stands over against nature, dominating and ruling it; he is a social creature. The Adam of Genesis 2 is made of dust and ashes, he has no barrier with nature, and his is a lonely existence. The blizzard is an Adam 2 experience: forcing us inside, away from one another, threatening our roofs and walls, our electricity and our communications. It forces us away from society, away from aesthetics, away from symbols, and toward a raw confrontation with basic, material questions of existence: where will we find food? Will our shelter hold up? Will we be able to go outside and visit someone else?

The shields against nature—material, medical, social—that modernity has spawned are its greatest accomplishments. They have created space, both physical and conceptual, in which human knowledge and creativity have flourished. But we are reminded—and with increasing frequency, as climate change is plain to see—that that space is fragile, a tent in the desert.

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