Rabbi Yael Splansky.
Shabbat Terumah, 5774.
Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph.
“The House We Build Together”.
It’s not so much WHAT we build, but HOW we build which tells of our character. “V’asu Li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.” “Make for me a sanctuary,” God says, “so that I may dwell among them.” How do we build?
I. A true story. In 1968 a young American faced a personal crisis. Raised by working-poor parents in Alabama, he had earned himself degrees in economics and law, built himself a business which made him a millionaire by the time he was 29. Married with a young family, a large home, a fancy car, a 2,000 acre farm, a cottage by the lake, and 2 speed boats, he was making plans to reach his next financial target. His wife came into his office and told him she was planning to leave him. She explained, “You’ve given me everything, but you.” It’s not an unusual story, sadly – he was working so hard to build the business, he neglected to build his marriage and his family.
His name was Millard Fuller. Shocked by the blow, he cancelled his plans, sold his share in the business, and moved his family to a kind of kibbutz in Southwest Georgia – an interracial farming community devoted to Christian service, specifically building homes with and for the rural poor. After five years, Millard and Linda moved their family to what was then Zaire to build houses and Christianity there. In 1976 Millard and Linda Fuller returned to the American South and founded the housing ministry now known as Habitat for Humanity. Since then they have built or rehabilitated more than 600,000 houses – providing dignified shelter for more than 3 million people worldwide.
Our congregation had partnered locally with Habitat for Humanity over the years. And some members of our congregation have travelled far and wide to volunteer for its work in developing countries. With its Christian roots of service to God by caring for all God’s children, Habitat for Humanity’s mission is admirable.
Millard Fuller tells his story in a book entitled, Love in the Mortar Joints. We tell a very similar story in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah. Love in the Tent Pegs. It’s a story of former slaves driven by their faith, driven by their thirst for God and freedom. They find themselves in the open spaces of the midbar, the wilderness of Sinai, and they begin to build. Each one brings terumah, a freewill gift of the heart. There are required contributions, too, but terumot are the additional offerings of individual heart: a measure of copper or silver, the rare blue shells for dying wool and linen, a bead of amber to set into the choshen. A carpenter might devote his time to carve the acacia wood. A weaver might create a tapestry. Everything down to the tent pegs was considered holy – a handcrafted expression of devotion to God and community there in the desert.
It’s not so much WHAT we build, but HOW we build which speaks of our character. The opposite is also true. How we DE-construct, how we attempt to tear down what has been built also tells of our character.
II. Another true story. This one is harder to hear. It is the inverse of Parashat Terumah. It is a twisted irony that during the very week when we read the Torah’s instruction for how to build a holy place, devoted to God – this is the week when our sister-congregation in Ra’anana was vandalized. Rabbi Kolberg and the members of her vibrant Reform Jewish community were shocked to find graffiti scrolled across the façade of their synagogue. The pre-school students, their parents and teachers were the first to see the tattoo. The letters sting and burn into the Jerusalem stone building. What is the message of the violators? It is not about occupation or settlements, but Jew against Jew.
It wasn’t the first time. Stones have been thrown to shatter the windows of the Reform and Conservative synagogues in the otherwise quiet and dignified community of Ranana. The letters spray-painted on the wall are more dangerous. Scrawled there were two source references, for this is the way a Jew talks to a Jew – through sacred texts. The way these texts were used, however, is an abomination – an affront to God. Psalm 139: 21-22: “Do I not hate them, O God, those who hate You? And am not I grieved by those that rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred. I count them as my enemies.”
The second source reference points to Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, Chapter III, 14. The 12th century legal code. “None of them has a place in the World to Come, even though they are Jews. They are cut down and lost, doomed by the magnitude of their wickedness forever… infidels, unbelievers in Torah … sinners.” (Too painful to say outloud on this holy day of Shabbat in this sanctuary.) Taken out of context, these are the words assigned to our fellow Reform Jews who just hours ago gathered for their Shabbat morning services – mirroring our own. Same Torah. Same prayers. Similar melodies. Same Neir Tamid. Same God.
I believe the hateful graffiti was sandblasted away in time for Shabbat, but the memory of it must motivate us to self-correct an ugly trait which shows itself from time to time among the Jewish people – in Ranana, at the Kotel, yes, even here in Toronto. Thursday evening, a member of our congregation and President of ARZEINU, Joan Garson, brought a resolution forward to our Holy Blossom Temple Board. She called for her fellow board members to send a letter on behalf of our congregation in order to express our solidarity with Kehillat Ra’anan and our outrage at this recent attack. You see, the police say they have investigated this series hate crimes, but no suspects have been identified. It seems the authorities tolerate those who show no tolerance for Liberal Judaism. And so the attacks continue.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the President of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism calls upon the Orthodox Rabbis and leaders of Ranana to publicly denounce these unlawful acts of extremism, but he also calls upon the Israeli public to (quote) “wake up from its slumber and take revolutionary educational and social steps that will allow all of us to lead meaningful and significant Jewish lives, based a worldview that stems from our great Torah legacy which declares the words we just sang as we returned the Torah to the ark: “D’rache-ha Darchei Noam, v’chol n’tivote-ha Shalom” “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all her paths lead to peace.” (Proverbs 3:17). The perpetrators of this hate crime may believe they are motivated by their devotion to God and Torah, but that is impossible. By definition, actions sincerely devoted to God and Torah only lead to peace. When a person defaces a synagogue, he is motivated by something altogether different.
It’s not so much WHAT we build, but HOW we build which tells of our character. “V’asu Li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.” “Make for me a sanctuary,” God says, “so that I may dwell among them.” How do WE build?
III. We are preparing for our own building project at Holy Blossom Temple. (I hope you’ve heard.) Phase One is scheduled to begin just after Simchat Torah this fall. And Phase Zero – some early works will begin in just a few short months. It is a very exciting time in the life of Holy Blossom Temple. WHAT we build will be beautiful and environmentally-responsible. But HOW we build will be transformative. This is the wisdom of our parashah. God instructs us: “Make for me a sanctuary,” God says, “so that I may dwell among you.” The emphasis is not on the noun, but on the verb. Not on the thing, but the action. You see, SOME people WILL be attracted to a beautiful building, (designed by the world-class architect Diamond-Schmitt, no less). But EVERYONE is attracted to a community that BUILDS TOGETHER. That is where the sanctity lies. Not in the tent pegs, but in the COMING TOGETHER over the tent pegs: the ones who fund the tent pegs, with the ones who design the tent pegs, with the ones who craft the tent pegs, with the ones who deliver them, with the ones who lay them, with the ones who pass by them, with the ones who maintain them, with the ones who depend upon them.
Not what we build, but how we build.
To be clear, Judaism is a religion uneasy with things of space. A plank of acacia wood can all-to-easily be turned into an idol. A measure of gold can become a Calf of Gold. Judaism has always been and must always be a religion of DEEDS, a sacred collection of actions intended to draw us closer to one another and to our God. Let HOW WE build THIS SACRED SPACE together be in the spirit of our parasha, so that God’s Presence will indeed be among us. Amen.