Shabbat Zakhor, parashat Tetzaveh, and Purim 5773

This Shabbat we read parashat Tetzaveh, and also mark one of the special Shabbatot of the months leading to Pesakh. The observance of Shabbat Zakhor, “Remember”, includes a special Torah reading describing the attack by the Amalekites on the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt, very early on in the journey. The Amalekites swooped down on the rear of the Israelite group, assaulting the vulnerable weaker and slower of the people Israel. The Torah records G-d’s command to Moshe to remember the event, and declares that the memory of Amalek will be wiped out.
One way in which this is understood is as a command to erase the behavior of Amalek from our own human interactions, to the extent that no one will remember any more that anyone ever took advantage of any one else’s weakness. If it is not remembered, it is as if it did not exist.
In Jewish tradition, memory is the key to existence; one’s life finds its meaning and its significance through the very fact that one is remembered. Children, therefore, are seen in Jewish tradition as carriers of the memory of their parents (one reason why many children are named after beloved departed family members). And it is often true that people are driven to make a “name” for themselves in some enduring way that will outlast them. It seems that one of our most urgent fears is that we might be forgotten – and that will mean that it was as if we never existed.
It is interesting, then, t consider what is not named in our parashah, and also in the Megillat Ester which we will read tomorrow evening at the end of Shabbat when Purim begins. Precisely on Shabbat Zakhor, “remember”, we read the only parashah in which Moshe is not mentioned in the entire Torah (outside, of course, of the Book Bereshit.) Moshe is not remembered in this parashah. Neither is God remembered, by Name, in the Megillah. 
It is easy to insist that Moshe’s fingerprints are all over the parashah anyway; we know he is there because he’s obviously implicit. And what about G-d in the Megillah? It is often pointed out that the word melekh, “king”, occurs so often that it is meant to indicate the King of Kings, not the Persian Emperor satirized throughout.  It is also noted that every time when Esther comes before the King to make her requests, Ahashverosh is not mentioned; it is the King before whom she pleads.
Often the most important word is the one that is not spoken, but is heard nevertheless; the word that we refrain from speaking, or that doesn’t even come to mind. On this Shabbat Zakhor take a moment to consider memory. Zeh Zikhri, “this is my remembering”, says G-d to Moshe at the burning bush, and gives Moshe a Name that we do not speak, but is heard nevertheless, especially in the silent place where Amalek used to be.

Parashat hashavuah: Terumah – Lift It Up

The parashat hashavua this week begins with a command: “Tell the Israelite people that when they take up an offering for Me; every person whose heart is moved to generosity can make that offering.” (Exodus 25.2) This begins the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the sacred space in which the Israelite people would focus upon being in God’s Presence (Hebrew: Shekhinah).
True, many generations later we are used to the teaching that God’s presence may be found anywhere; but that does not keep us for needing special, sacred places ourselves – places that serve as agreed-upon meeting places for us to come together for no less than the purpose of experiencing theShekhinah, the close and intimate Presence of God. 
You who belong to a shul, or are considering joining one, might not have thought of your shul that way: as a place where you come to focus upon the experience of being immersed in God’s Presence. But if the place is devoid of that possibility, it may be beautiful, but it’s not a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Shekhinah;  conversely, the shabby rooms of our European shtetl dwelling ancestors were sometimes so full of that awareness that those who prayed there were able to rise above their everyday miseries because of the bliss of that awareness.
The parashah goes on to describe exactly how the Mishkan is to be built, in great detail. Facsimiles of this structure have been constructed on the web, in miniature, and – I’ve been told but have not seen – in full size, somewhere in the Negev. Gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, woods of various kinds – but the most important detail is given us at the start: all must be built out of material which is terumah, translated in two ways: “separated”, and “lifted up”.
Separated (Rashi): Halakhah guides us to understand that out of all our regular possessions and resources we should separate the first and best out for God. This is also the idea behind the ma’aser, “tithe”, which our farmer ancestors were to bring of their crops. Until the appropriate tithes had been separated out and given appropriately, the rest of the crop was not kasher (literally, “fit”)and could not be eaten. That which is kosher, in other words, is that which reflects our own spiritual awareness of the blessing of a successful crop, or job, or project. It is not ours, not all ours – as the President put it in a sound bite that could not be savaged quite to death, “you didn’t build that”. None of us builds alone: we are part of a fantastic network of support, resources and factors beyond our control, and our response to our own successes should be humble gratitude, not the self-celebrating arrogance of believing that we have power.
Lifted up (Zohar, II): As the Jewish mystics intuited, everything in our existence is made of the same stuff. Everything has within it a spark of G-d; not only human beings but all of the material world – even gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, and woods of various kinds. One should not overlook the holy potential of any object, much less any person. What makes the difference is, as the Torah indicates, the “heart moved to generosity”. The spark of holiness in any object is lifted up through the mindfulness of the one who makes the offering. That is true of the offering we make of our words and acts as well.
An offering made by rote, or with resentment, can never be part of a mishkan. 
No volunteer work undertaken for a shul done with anger, annoyance or the hope of being noticed will ever evoke the Shekhinah. 
But every offering made by one whose heart is moved to generosity, large or small, obvious or unmarked, lifts up the offering and its holy potential all the way to God’s Presence. 
This is the only way we make a mishkan, a shul, into a sacred space, and it is more beautiful by far than a gilded, ornate building created without true terumah.
May you see the beauty of your offering of volunteer activity, tzedakah, and committee work as a true terumah and the very sacred essence of the Mishkan, both inside and outside of organized Judaism.