The Tabernacle of Sera Wirdsein

One hundred years ago this week, a Franco-German artist started a remarkable project on a tiny patch of land on the battlefields of the Somme. His pseudonym was Sera Wirdsein and he was a master of Dada – the concept of illogical, irrational, art that flourished in the aftermath of World War I.

Sera was one of the many psychological evacuees who seemed to fill the streets of the Paris of the post-war era. Sera had seen the worst of the action on the front and yet he seemed to be above it. He painted insanely idyllic scenes, striking in their brazen refusal to acknowledge the war that had just passed.

At first, Sera was an outcast among outcasts. He didn’t express the pain others felt. But with time, people began to appreciate the genius of what he did. Painted in 1913, his scenes would have been simply idyllic. Painted in 1919, those same scenes were a striking commentary on what had been lost and what could yet be gained.

So, as the post-war months and years passed, Sera began to attract a coterie of fellow artists. They were all trying to grapple with the war. But their efforts were scattered, almost senseless. Then Sera shared his inspiration with them.

It started with that famous story, of Christmas of 1914, when a series of unofficial ceasefires broke out all along the Western Front. For all who have heard it, it is a story of hope. Of human fellowship able to survive the greatest of horrors.

It was to be written down and preserved in glass.

It called for a picture of friends at University – from before the war.

It called for a movie from the battlefield, playing backwards again and again – seemingly bring the dead back to life with every short repetition of the frames.

Around those simple artifacts, artifacts of hope, he called for a simple structure. A structure somehow built of letters shared across national borders. Of children’s drawings and of photos of veterans in Paris cafes. A structure then wrapped, protected, by civilian clothes and soldiers uniforms and the great coats of the Great War.

The structure represented the veterans of that war, the ideals they could somehow reach for and the guardianship they could provide.

But Sera didn’t describe how all of it would fit together. His plan had gaps. There were chunks missing. To fill them, he invited the artists who surrounded him to participate in the project.

And so, they went out to the Somme. They found a small patch of land that was free of explosive shells, and they began to build. Materials began to flow in from Lille and Brussels and Dusseldorf and Paris and even places as far as Kansas City and Melbourne, Australia.

Veterans, scarred and broken, were contributing in their own little ways to this remarkable structure.

And those artists who built it? They added their own souls to it. They filled in the gaps Sera had left. The building became a reflection not just of him, but of them as well.

The artifacts in the center of the structure represented hope and fellowship and life. And the structure itself represented the veterans who needed that hope. The castaway artifacts of their lives would forever embrace the spiritual rays of hopeful possibility.

Then the gifts began to change their form.

Soldiers, veterans, began to send tokens of their broken lives. Tokens to be sacrificed and destroyed. Liquor they couldn’t shake. Blood drawn in fights or from the abuse of those they loved. Bullets taken from guns they had held in desperation. Screams of horror and pain somehow captured in glass mason jars.

All of it was destroyed, condemned. All of it was erased in the house of possibility.

They also sent pay stubs and cash. Photos of happy children. Even writing and painting and sculptures of their own. They sent tokens of their success, of their ability to live a life beyond the pain. They sent tokens of thanks and praise.

These too were erased – not to be destroyed but to be being transformed from mere physical artifacts to spiritual truths.

Every little contribution was building the relationship between those who had seen the worst of the world and the idea that the best was still out there to be touched by them – or by those they loved. Every little contribution reinforced the idea that they could appreciate the good in ways no others could.

The artists, no longer creating a structure, became custodians of it. They began to wear white robes that signified the absence of blood and death. They spoke little of themselves and their own vision and instead studied and lifted up and celebrated those who brought gifts to their little patch of land along the Somme.

It was an insane little project, that lean-to structure in the middle of one of the worst battlefields mankind has ever seen. Nonetheless, it helped those who were a part of it pull back the overwhelming horror they had experienced. It helped them see that there could be a sun, at least in some corner of their lives.

It gave them just a bit of peace.

In May 1940, the advancing Nazi army wiped out that little structure. In the time that has passed, almost everybody has forgotten about it. You can’t even find it online. But in a way, it still remains. It still remains because the story of it was passed down through the generations of those who were a part of it.

In its way – in a fundamentally important way – it is more real and more alive than even the Parthenon or the Pyramids.

You see, Sera Wirdsein wasn’t building a Temple or a memorial. His material was not wood or fabric or glass. No, Sera Wirdsein’s material was the veterans themselves. Sera Wirdsein was shaping souls – and helping those souls reshape themselves.

As you might have guessed, Sera Wirdsein never existed. His name, in French and German, means Will Be Will Be – a shadow of our G-d’s name I Will Be What I Will Be.

Sera’s little structure in the midst of the battlefield is just a modern stand-in for the Mishkan (Tabernacle). His white-robed artists are stand ins for our Kohanim (Priests).

The story of Sera reveals how the artifacts and the structure and the clothes and the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are not about gold and silver and wood and wool.

No, the true material our G-d works with is that of the soul.

As we build our Mishkan, G-d is forming us, and we are forming ourselves. As our Kohanim bring the tokens of both our failures and our thanks, our G-d is forming us, and we are forming ourselves.

The Mishkan, and even its derivatives, have long since been destroyed. But it has been passed down through our generations and so it remains a part of our reality to this very day.

In the most fundamental of ways, it is even more real, and more alive, than the Parthenon or the Pyramids.

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