Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Terumah: Creating a holy and welcoming place

Before synagogues existed, Jews worshiped at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And before the Temple, when the Children of Israel were traveling in the wilderness from Egypt to the Land of Israel, they worshipped at the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. In this week’s portion, Terumah, we learn how the Mishkan was constructed, who helped by bringing the materials and who helped by crafting the tent and all its furnishings.

Later on we read that Moses, Aaron and the kohanim, priests, were the only ones who actually entered the sacred precincts of the Mishkan. No random Israelite was allowed to perform the duties of preparing sacrifices. The priests did not volunteer for this and they could not interview for the job. Priestly duties were hereditary, passed from father to son. Nevertheless, priests who had physical or moral blemishes were barred from offering sacrifices. Like the animals they offered, the priest had to be perceived as “whole” and without any disfigurement.  

The opposite is true of the Israelites who brought the offerings from their flocks and fields. No Israelite was barred from taking part in the sacrificial cult, either because of a physical disability or a moral defect. Indeed, the purpose of bringing an offering was to help individuals heal from moral failings or physical ailments, be relieved from guilt or give thanks.

Our portion, Terumah, appears before any discussion of the priestly duties. The first discussion of the Mishkan does not mention any restrictions on who may bring a gift to help build the holy space. The portion opens by stating the purpose of this holy place: veshachanti betocham, “that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). In creating this mikdash, the holy place designed for the divine presence to be close to the community, every individual was welcomed and included.

The medieval commentator Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, underscores this point in two places.  Commenting on the phrase “the whole Israelite community” (Ex. 35:1), Ramban explains that this language included both men and women, because everyone contributed to the construction of the Mishkan.  Anyone could bring the yarns and fabrics, gold and silver and copper, wood and oil and spices, and precious stones. Anyone could make the sanctuary and all of its furnishings, including the ark itself.

In fact, when the Torah gives instructions on crafting the aron hakodesh, the holy ark, which held the sacred stone tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai, Ramban finds another example of inclusion. Here, the verb is in the plural, va’asu – they shall make. In every other instance of building, ornamenting and assembling the Mishkan, the verb is in the singular, va’asita – you (singular) shall make. Ramban points this out, explaining that all Israel was to participate in the making of the ark.

In our portion, the Torah is making a statement of radical inclusion. After all, in creating something so lofty, one might be very selective. Only the very best craftspeople might have been admitted. Only the finest gifts might have been received. Unlike the priestly obligations which were restricted to a select few, no one was prevented from participating in this holy work. The inclusion of every Israelite in the community is central to creating a holy place where divinity can dwell.

The Torah gives only one requirement for those who contributed to building the Mishkan: that the gifts come “from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2). Does God want fine linens and gold and silver ornaments? Does God want only those who are the best at what they do? The Talmud puts it succinctly: God wants the heart (Sanhedrin 106b)

Today, when we have no priests, no sacrifices and no Temple, our synagogues and communal institutions can and should be holy places where anyone can bring their offerings, both material gifts and individual talents. What is entailed in becoming a welcoming community? Later in parashat Kedoshim, the portion instructing us how to live holy lives, the Torah gives the answer: v’ahavta lereyacha kamocha, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva called this the most fundamental principle of the Torah. Find a way to relate to people who are different from you. When someone brings their heart, answer them as God would, with a joyous welcome.

Is it enough to proclaim that everyone is welcome? In the same portion in Leviticus, we also read “do not curse the deaf and do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). In other words, we need to live our welcome by looking after the needs of others. To live as a welcoming, inclusive community requires attention and intention.

Welcoming communities have a dual responsibility: first, to state explicitly that everyone is welcome, regardless of their background, their living situation, who they are or how they look. And at the same time, a welcoming community needs to be aware of differences and willing to respond, or even be pro-active, in making people feel welcome. For example, saying that a community welcomes people with disabilities is not fulfilled without handicap access. Becoming a community that is welcoming to Jews of color cannot be accomplished if all the images of Jews on the walls or in the books are white. A community that asks families to list the “father” and the “mother” is not a welcoming community to a family with two mothers or two fathers.

If our goal is to be inclusive, then it’s not enough to consider what makes us feel like good hosts. We need to consider how the other feels. A welcoming community asks its members what makes you feel unwelcome and what makes you feel at home.

To create a mishkan, a holy space, we need to make room for each heart that is moved to be here. We each have a unique offering. From the Torah itself, the Jewish community is called to become a place where everyone is welcome so that God can dwell among us.

Published in The Jewish Advocate on January 29, 2014

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