Rabbi Alex Freedman
A story: There was once a Jewish village in the woods – think of Anatevka from Fiddler – where nothing ever changed. Every morning the men gathered in the synagogue for prayers, generation after generation. Until one day something changed.
A man named Aaron had stepped out of the service right before the Amidah, the most important prayer of all. Afterward, people wondered where he had gone. Why would he do that? The rabbi quelled the gossip: “I’m sure it was just one time. No big deal.”
But the next day, it happened again!
The rabbi wanted to know where he was going instead of connecting to G-d in the synagogue. So the next morning, the rabbi followed Aaron when he slipped away during the service. Aaron walked out of the village and into the woods. Deep in the forest, he found a clearing among the trees and began to pray the most pure prayer the rabbi had seen in a long time. Afterward, Aaron was startled to see the rabbi follow him. The rabbi said, “Your prayer is so inspiring! Come back to the synagogue. Because G-d is the same everywhere.”
Aaron responded, “G-d may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”
Places change us: the woods, the Kotel, the sanctuary. G-d is as present in every place as G-d is in those, but we feel more connected in those places because we are different.
Parashat Terumah describes the portable sanctuary constructed by the Israelites in the desert. G-d does not need the sanctuary to be present among the Jews. But having a dedicated space for G-d enables people to focus on the divine in a way that our living rooms do not. We need the sanctuary, not G-d.
Ironically, the pandemic has turned all this upside down (like Purim next week!). Because now more of us are tuning into services from our homes than are entering our sanctuary. This is not ideal, but we must do what we can to stay safe.
I cannot wait until we are all back in our sanctuary, whenever that day arrives. It will revitalize our social bonds with each other. Like Aaron finding spiritual solace in the woods, I hope it will strengthen our connection to G-d as well.