February 13, 2016 / 4 Adar I 5776
Holy Blossom Temple
Rabbi Bill S. Tepper
Among my favorite films –one that I endeavor to view at least once per year – is the 1940s comedy classic ‘Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House’ with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
This being Hollywood, Mr Blandings’ dream, as a matter of course, comes true. But not before our unlucky hero experiences frustration familiar to all who have ever aspired to reside in the home of their dreams: innumerable modifications in architectural plans, missed deadlines, antagonistic contractors, unanticipated costs and, in one of the film’s funniest scenes – a door that mysteriously locks and unlocks all on its own. For Mr. Blandings there is exasperation without end. For the audience meanwhile, the laughs never cease. But for both, thankfully, the ending is a happy one. Dreams, we are meant to realize, can come true.
It is the beauty of our Shabbat Torah portion – Terumah, meaning gifts– that the specs, so to speak, pertaining to the building of our Israelite ancestors’ Tabernacle in the wilderness – the mishkan, that is the dwelling place of Israel’s God – are spot-on. The Tabernacle’s design, along with materials required to complete it, are fully understood by all. There are no imprecise measurements, no flawed materials, no disgruntled workers and no baffling doors that independently lock and unlock. Rather, the instructions provide the Israelites, together with us who read, recite, study and venerate Torah, with as accurate and compelling a vision of God’s dream house, and Israel’s too, that we who are followers and lovers of Jewish tradition could hope for.
There are no bargain basement goods here: only the best wood, the finest precious metals – including a liberal quantity of gold; the most excellent gemstones, premium fabrics, the most aromatic spices and incense and the purest of olive oil for the lighting of the holy space’s lamp – all of which are to be offered by the Israelite people according to their means and by way of the purity of their hearts.
As described in Torah, the Tabernacle is as opulent a structure as can be imagined. It is a breathaking dwelling place for God as well as a fitting meeting place – ohel moed– a tent of meeting being one of its names – wherein the Israelite people will express their gratitude to the God who liberated them from servitude in Egypt and has sworn – with Moses in the roles of teacher and guide – to take them to the land promised to Israel’s ancestors. The Tabernacle’s tangible physicality, its very portability ensures that wherever and for as long as the Israelites are journeying they shall take comfort and draw strength from God.
This concept of portability – not only of the Tabernacle but of God’s transience too – is illustrated through the midrash, the richly –revealing body of rabbinic literature that enlarges our understanding of Torah:
The only daughter of a king married another king. When the new husband wished to take his new wife away with him to his homeland, the bride’s father said to him: [she] is my only child; I cannot part with her but neither can I ask you not to take her for she is now your wife. But wherever you go to live, have a room ready for me so I may be with you; for I cannot leave my daughter forever. Similarly God said to Israel: I have given you a Torah from which I cannot entirely part, nor can I ask you not to accept it; but please, make for me a house wherein I may dwell among you [Exodus Rabbah 33:1].
From a twenty-first century standpoint, we read, recollect and admire the fervor with which our ancestors ensured that the Tabernacle would come to fruition. No material expense is spared. Nothing is too good for this holy space. Nothing is too good for Israel. And nothing is too good for God.
Synagogues and temples – the holy spaces of our day embrace and are thankful for the monetary and other modern forms of terumah from which flow the services – worship, education and as wide an array of informational, social and social justice programming as is possible with which they may meet the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of their congregants. Such activity is what draws you here. And in the best of possible worlds, keeps you here as well. For all that largesse however, and as I have experienced it thus far in my rabbinate – synagogues and temples just as dearly – if not more so – welcome and thrive on the terumah of the people themselves: congregants, volunteers and conversion to Judaism candidates all representing the entire demographic spectrum, whose desire to share their time, energy, enthusiasm, resources and ideas – in other words, the best of themselves with the life of their congregation.
When congregants are present to help organize a Shabbat dinner or Passover seder for the community. When members arrive early to prepare breakfast and set up the space and materials for Shabbat morning Torah Study. When there is a mah jong tournament for which extra tables have to be put in place. When attendance for Selihot or Shavuot learning sessions exceed expectations. When volunteers in our congregation enthusiastically offer to spend evenings serving meals and spending time with those who are homeless, or deliver items to the Food Bank and Community Kitchen. And when – as I experience so with my darling community in Chattanooga Tennessee – laypersons more than willing to lead services, teach Hebrew and other classes and fulfill the mitzvah of bikur holim –visiting the homebound and hospitalized when their rabbi is, unexpectedly, called to answer a more personal need. Love, caring, kindness and the quenchless thirst for learning – Jewish and otherwise: these, in truth, are the priceless materials with which the most enduring of dream houses are without question built.
As my colleague Rabbi Nancy Wechsler writes:
The key to places of holiness, whether lavish or modest in size has to do with heart. We admire the homes of celebrities, pristine in their décor and flawless landscaping, and yet we wonder what would warm such perfection? Created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of God,” we know that when longing to create sacred space it is the gentle beating of hearts in sync, a willingness to be flexible, and a yearning to be generous. These qualities will always comprise the blueprint for a “mishkan.”[‘The Heart is the Key to Holiness’ Reform Judaism.org 2/7/2016]]
Notwithstanding the material elegance with which our synagogues and temples are imbued, and aside from the physical beauty with which we adorn our houses of worship, study and assembly, it is the terumah of our beating hearts; the terumah of time and personal resources drawn from our already-busy lives, and the terumah of the spirit, devotion and adoration for Judaism that sustains us through which we shall surely envision rising before us dream houses – for God and all of us – in our midst.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.