By Hazzan Ben Tisser
Given the opening of this week’s Parashah, it would seem that this is the week best suited for reminding us to contribute to the shul – to complete our Kol Nidre pledges, to pay our voluntary dues to the auxiliaries, to consider a B’yachad gift, or perhaps an ad in the journal for Rabbi Schwab’s installation, but that’s not what I want to focus on.
Terumah is about much more than the first capital campaign in Jewish history. It is about creating a home for God amongst the people. God charges Moshe to go and collect precious gifts from the community—hopefully the entire community—and specifically from “anyone whose heart moves them…” God then proceeds with the architectural plans and tasks associated with the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. It is to be a place not only where God’s presence may dwell among the people, but a focal point of the community where gatherings will take place and where ultimately God can be accessed.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention that the other major act of creation detailed in the Torah is that of the Genesis story. He points out eight phrases which show how the creation of the Tabernacle mirrors the narrative of the creation of the world. The building of the Mishkan becomes a significant marker in the development of the People of Israel, as it is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the [Red] Sea, leaving the domain of Egypt and entering their new domain as the people of God.”
If we think about it, God created a world which God believed would be the perfect place for humankind to dwell. God created Eden, the ultimate paradise and charged the first people with only two guiding principles: to care for it, and not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As long as they were in Eden, Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, but as soon as they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they were cast out of Eden and had to work hard for that which they had.
There is a story I have told under the chuppah when officiating weddings about Adam and Eve. It is about how after a lifetime of hard work, the loss of their son, Abel, and struggle in many ways, God has mercy on them and gives Adam the open invitation to bring his family back to Eden. For a moment, Adam is thrilled! He would never again have to till the soil, nor would Eve again have to work hard. And as he approached his wife to speak with her, he looked deeply at her. He saw the lines on her face, earned by hard work, and in her eyes he saw the memories of a lifetime spent in happiness and in sorrow. And he realized that as appealing as it would be to go back to Eden—as sweet as it would be to live out the rest of his life in total comfort and in ease—it would not be as meaningful.
It would have been easy for God to build the Mishkan, just as God engraved the tablets and split the sea. But there is a greater value. Just as God created the world as a sanctuary for humankind to dwell, it was the task of the People of Israel to similarly create a sanctuary for God. It’s one thing to have a place to go to access God, to build community, to study, and to celebrate, but is another thing completely to have a hand in the conception, building, and maintenance of such a place. Had the people not participated, by gifts or by labor, in the building of the Tabernacle, it wouldn’t have been the place in which God wanted to dwell.
We can parallel this idea in contemporary life in several ways. Clearly, the Synagogue is our modern-day tabernacle, and we each must do our part to build, re-build, and sustain it. Whether it be volunteering time or contributing our resources, our connection deepens to this place when we know we have a stake in its existence. But there’s something more. As builders of Jewish homes, where Jewish history, dreams, and ideals live, we each have the opportunity to create a mikdash me’at—a “small sanctuary”—a place where God and the best of what Judaism has to offer can dwell.
As we approach Shabbat Terumah, I invite you to discuss together—as friends, families, and as members of this sacred community—how we can help each other build and maintain our own sacred spaces, whether at work or at home, so that God has an even greater presence in each of our lives.
In our Parashah is the well-known verse “V’-asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”—“let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst them.” In other words, if we build it, care for it, maintain it, then God will come.