This week the Torah begins with a passage that has become famous for its use in building campaigns throughout the Jewish world:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25.8)

Our parashah is called Terumah, “gift.” The verse above is ideal for an egalitarian fundraiser because the concept is that all of us are to bring that which is our own unique gift to the building of the common sacred space – and because that gift is to be freely given, a gift of the heart.

But we’re not ready for that verse, and all that it implies, yet. (Turns out that the Israelites weren’t either.) This is why: if you look at our communal trajectory, we are not yet a group settled into a space. We are just beginning to arrive there, and we are arriving in stages – like our ancestors, in waves: some who have been using the space for some time now, and others who have yet to enter it. Some still limping from the effect of the crossing of the Sea, others unnerved by the very nature of change, and all recovering from the trauma of Egyptian slavery.

We have crossed over, and now we have work to do: the same work that the Israelites now need to do. Not the building of sacred space – that will come, but not only through the successful ingathering of gifts that secures the roof over our heads. The work upon us now is indicated by the next couple of parshiyot, in which we begin to build, only to be distracted by the unfinished business of clarifying and cohering, not the floor plan, but the shared essence of those who are doing the building.

The gifted Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg follows earlier interpreters of this section of Torah in suggesting that it is placed here out of order, to obscure a deeper truth; that, in reality, the Israelites’ traumatized experience of terror led to murderous dysfunction, all out of proportion to the actual danger they were in. 

Just as for the ancient Israelites, our exercise of building the sacred space can only truly take place when each of us listens to our hearts:

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring gifts; you shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves (Exodus 25.2)

Our hearts are, at the very least, distracted. After so many months of so many plagues – COVID-19, then the vaccination, then the Delta variant, then a few months of what we thought was oftentimes, then the Omicron variant, all against a background of climate urgency, housing emergency, and social unrest, until we come to realize that there will not be an “after”, not anytime soon…..

Like the ancient Israelites who were suddenly surrounded by trackless wilderness, full of real dangers, the society we live in has turned frightening: from Pittsburgh to Poway to Colleyville, those of us who thought we were safe have realized we are not. The myth of individualism leaves us lonely and vulnerable when what we need is to be able to trust in and rely on each other in meaningful Jewish community – and we barely know what that is, or feel that we have the strength to act toward it, some days. We are having a difficult time, and we tend to take it out on each other.

We have only begun to face the reality of what it means to be a community that can build a truly sacred space. We have a lot of building to do to be the community we can be. Thankfully, it is full of those who are already showing the path, through their compassion and steadiness. May their lights shine bright for the rest of us, reassuring us and showing us the way toward peace within, even in a time when peace without is so far away.

אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 4.1)

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