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How to Create Holiness

Torah Talk on Terumah 5779

In a mitzvah that is at the heart of Jewish religious experience today, in our portion of Terumah this week God commands the Israelites, “Asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham—make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.”

With this statement the book of Exodus moves from practical laws to ritual ones. The plans for the creation of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, first site of national worship, and the directions for building of the ark of the covenant, are explained and detailed. To create the new central shrine for prayer, the place which God’s presence will actually inhabit, Moses calls on the people of Israel to donate materials from the best of what they have, what comes to be called a Terumah offering.

And a remarkable thing happens: when the people are asked to donate gifts to build the holy structures needed to worship God they come forward immediately and give much more than is required. Moses actually has to ask the Israelites to stop bringing so much gold and silver and so many precious fabrics.

This marks the first time in history when a temple building campaign brought in more than was asked for or required. Something similar happened here at Congregation Beit Simcha in December and January when we asked for donations of materials to create our own sanctuary. It is now beautifully furnished with your donations!

The word for this experience is Terumah, a freewill offering, a gift to God out of the goodness of the heart. This generous freewill offering is a powerful thing indeed, for when it is constructed the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, built from free generosity, immediately is filled with the Shechinah, God’s presence.

When we give freely of ourselves to our temples today—in time, love, care, or funds—we seek to recreate that freewill offering, the full gift of heart and hand of our ancestors in Moses’ time. And when we succeed in doing so, we, too, bring God’s presence, and love, into our lives.

The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote beautifully and sensuously on the subject of the synagogue in his final book, Open Closed Open:

I studied love in the sanctuary of my childhood,

I sang, “Come, Sabbath bride” on Friday nights

With a bridegroom’s fever, I practiced longing for the days of the Messiah,

I conducted yearning drills for the days of yore that will not return.

The cantor serenades his love out of the depths,

Kaddish is recited over lovers who stay together,

The male bird dresses up in a blaze of color.

And we dress the rolled-up Torah scrolls in silken petticoats

And gowns of embroidered velvet

Held up by narrow shoulder straps.

And we kiss them as they are passed around the synagogue,

Stroking them as they pass, as they pass,

As we pass.

May we find love of God, and holiness, and connection in our own sanctuaries today.

Don’t miss the Cohon Memorial Foundation Awards this Shabbat, Friday night at 6:30pm at Congregation Beit Simcha, and the Czech Memorial Scroll Re-Dedication during 9am Shabbat Services Saturday morning at Beit Simcha, 3001 E. Skyline Drive, Suite 117,

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