Terumah 5777 - 2017 - What would you compromise for the power to speak as One Nation?

Post date: Mar 3, 2017 10:04:44 PM

Parshat Terumah - What would you compromise for the power to speak as One Nation?

Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

We start this week's d’rasha with a question. If you feel there is some value in identifying yourself (in part) as one member of this group called “Jews”, … or atheists or Masons, or whatever, what beliefs or imperatives bind you together? Conversely, what would you sacrifice, what sacred cow would you slay, in order to have the power to speak as one?

This week, our parshat ha’shavu’ah comes at a tense and challenging time for many of us. It is a time of increasing violence against Jewish communities in this country – synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and community centers. If there is any one thing we should be able to agree on, as Jews, a good contender for that must be our common repugnance to violence against innocent people.

This endeavor, finding common cause as a people is at the heart of this week's parasha, Terumah, the free will offering toward constructing our ancestors’ tabernacle in the desert.

If the Torah is meant as our guidepost, our foundational text, it seems as though we should take this opportunity – this Shabbat – to bring ourselves closer to and deeper inside its words.

Parshat Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:9) – describes the construction of the mishkan, or, tabernacle, in great detail. From the dyes used to color the fabrics, the gold inlays and overlays, the cherubs on the outside, and the ceremonial objects within. The exquisite detail with which the mishkan should be built stands in stark contrast to the sparse information given in many of the narrative portions of the Torah, such as akedat yitzchak (the binding of Isaac).

Interestingly, the innermost chamber of the mishkan, inside the Holy of Holies, in which the tablets of the Decalogue (10 commandments) were kept, was overlaid with pure gold. This chamber was not only covered on the outside, but even on the inside, which few would ever see. Sages have commented that this may be a metaphor for our deepest, innermost selves – even when others cannot see, do we put forward our best effort? Do we treat others with kindness and patience, even when there is no advantage - no repercussion to our own future?

There are many ways, in Judaism, that we remind ourselves of our most dearly held values, even when they are not being observed or directly acted upon. One of these is the menorah – the 7 branched candelabra which has been a symbol of Israel since our most ancient times.

This lamp was to be lit every day in perpetuity. It was (and, in modern times, continues to be) a metaphor for our eternal obligation to be “a light unto the nations,” whether that be in intellectual pursuits, human interaction, artistic expression, or speaking truth to power. It is this last meaning that our sages found to be central to the message of Hanukkah, and why, although the basic story of Hanukkah is a military victory that beat the odds, our rabbinical practice of Hanukkah is all about the menorah.

Alternatively, the perpetually lit menorah represents the light or goodness that can be found at almost any time, in almost any situation. The light stands to remind us of other things that are good, or things that bring light to our lives, even in our darkest hour.

In another sense, though, the light is itself the thing to which we should attend. The light has remained present and steady throughout the ages. The light, then can be an ed, a witness. In fact, the holy of holies (where the tablets of the 10 commandments were kept) inside the mishkan is referred to as the ohel ha'edut – the tent of the pact. However, edut has a related meaning of witness. The light, then, is witness to our history. The light has watched and taken in all that has happened, and serves to remind us, even in the darkest of times, from where we have come and to where we are going.

To bear witness is both an honor and a burden. This, said Eli Wiesel, was what finally motivated him to speak out about the Holocaust after a decade of remaining silent. He felt it was his duty to bear witness – he was given the gift of life, the power of his writing, and the burden of surviving alone. So he must bear witness.

The menorah reminds us that we must bear witness, as well – it is a gift to remember the beautiful times in our past and the legacies which give us pride. It is also a burden – to remember the sadness, loss, and fear of the past, and to recall the pain that our community has faced before. And perhaps sadder still, than when we have been victims of external forces, are the times we did not live up to our own potential as a people, as Am Yisrael.

I believe that acknowledging how our own actions, good and bad, have created the events we see around us, both good and bad, is a necessary step in order to change our behaviors to achieve different outcomes.

Perhaps this is why the parsha this week begins with the phrase v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham – and they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. To me, this is one of the wisest sentences in Torah.

God does not dwell on high, far away or through intermediaries. God dwells among us, but only when we create space for the Divine. It is our job, here on earth, to create a community, a society, a country, and a world, worthy of God.

What can help us to face pain and address the hatred and divisions we are witnessing to an alarming level in our country? The menorah reminds us, but is only an object. When we remember, and allow God to dwell in our midst, we are able to face our history and create our future.

On this Shabbat, as we face rising hatred in our nation, it is not merely the words of Torah to which we must cleave, but to one another. The freed slaves in the desert found a common cause, a desire to build a community worthy of Shechina, God’s presence. We now, must find a way to rebuild our fractured community, whether that is based on Shechina, justice, compassion, or something else.

Coming closer to the Torah requires thought, insight, and reason. Moving toward one another, however, requires trust, patience, forgiveness, and love. It is not always easy to love one another – our community can be fragmented by politics, halacha, and old grudges. Coming together as one requires us to set aside these disagreements, and to seek connection. It requires us to be more loving than we are angry, more kind than we are spiteful, and more forgiving than we are judgmental.

I hope and pray we shed enough things that divide us, in order to build a community worthy of God to dwell in our midst.

Samuel Asher

Yvonne Asher