God on the Guest List – Parshat Terumah 5781

If you could invite God to your Passover seder, what would the invitation look like? If you were expecting God at Shabbat dinner, how would you set the table? If God attended your child’s mitzvah celebration, would you expect a gift?

In our earliest experiences with Judaism, we’re taught that we don’t need to “invite” God because “God is everywhere and God is one.” God isn’t like Elijah, with his saved cup of wine and ceremonial door opening. God is always present.

This idea that God doesn’t need an invitation somewhat contradicts this week’s Torah portion, in which Moses receives a very clear and detailed instruction manual for building the Mishkan, an earthly shelter of sorts for God. In our parshah this week, Terumah, God asks the Israelite nation to build a sanctuary so that God may dwell among us. As a side note, how interesting to read about God wanting to dwell among us at a time when we can’t even dwell together. But this Torah portion isn’t only about a sanctuary building; we are to build holiness among us so that God will be present in those human connections. 

Some time ago, I asked our Foundation School preschoolers what it means to build a holy, safe space, and their answers included lifting each other up, problem solving, kindness, sharing, and having fun. But more importantly, all the answers came in first person plural. “We lift each other.” “We solve problems.” “We are kind.” They answered my question with the word “we” because to the youngest in our community, sanctuary and holiness are created when we include one another in our lives. 

Parshat Terumah teaches us that God dwells among us not because of an ancient Tabernacle or a modern synagogue building, but because of the moments when our actions reflect holiness. Yes, God is everywhere, but the invitation still matters. When we treat each other with dignity, love, and respect for all of our beautiful gifts, we create a world where God dwells among us every single day.

Connected to Each Other – Parshat Terumah 5780

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In some homes on Shabbat, families have a tradition of touching the challah as it’s blessed. In larger groups, the tradition is that each person touches someone who is touching the challah, so that everyone present is connected to the things that nourish and sustain us, like food and family.

Every week at Foundation School when we celebrate Shabbat, we raise up our hands, stretch our bodies, and ask the person next to us if it would be ok if we rest our hands on each other’s shoulders and create a circle of blessing from one person to the next. We then move into blessing the challah in this same embrace, as we pass the connection to the challah from one person to the next. This is one of my favorite Friday morning moments because of its intimacy and human-to-human connection. And in the process, we’re also teaching our children consent as well as the power that comes from an entire community reaching out and connecting with one another. It’s a beautiful final moment to hold onto before we disperse for the weekend.

So much of who we are as a people is tied to this feeling of intimate connection, and it stems from the Torah. This week we read Parshat Terumah. Terumah recounts for us the building of the Tabernacle, and we receive instructions for the beautification of the space. Each vessel, covering, light fixture, and costume piece is listed so that the space is constructed to God’s exact specifications. Each piece is named individually, and each piece has a precise purpose. Assembled together, this will become the dwelling place of God.

As part of the discussion of the cherubs that would adorn the ark, we read, “They shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” In other words, the cherubs all must be connected to the others, not facing God alone. The idea is that in order to fully connect as a community, we must be as connected to fellow human beings as we are to God.

It’s easy to get caught up in the routines and problems of daily life, closed off with our “wings” covering our faces so no one can connect in. Parshat Terumah reminds us that building a a sacred space together isn’t just about connecting with God; it’s about the face-to-face connections we have with each other.

Just Because – Parshat Terumah 5779

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I have a very dear friend who makes it her mission to surprise her friends with small gifts and letters throughout the year, just because. Inevitably this gift comes on a day when I’m feeling a bit sad, or I miss this friend. Sometimes the letters come with a favorite piece of candy in them, and other times it’s just a sweet note letting me know someone is thinking about me. The best part is that I never have to ask for the gifts, nor do I expect them. My friend gives freely to others because she wants to connect, to make meaningful relationships, and show her love.

This week we read Parshat Terumah, which reminds us of the importance of giving gifts just because we want to. The parshah focuses mainly on the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, including what the ark and decorative pieces will look like. The instructions are specific, including what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

While the instructions and builder’s manual for this project are exacting and complete with lists of materials, there is still room for individuality and improvement, as God begins the entire request for materials in the following way. Shemot (Exodus) chapter 25, verses 1-2 read, “And God spoke to Moshe saying: Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is moved to give.” God tells the people not to offer just any old gift; God wants gifts that have meaning. And, given this request, the Israelite people have a choice to make. The gifts that are brought aren’t just gifts that God put on a registry; they are gifts that the people feel compelled to give.

Furthermore, the text begs the question of what it means to give a gift based on your heart being moved to give it. God did not do anything particularly special for the people in this moment, and the people do not go out and buy presents for God. Instead, they give from their hearts, and they give from what they owned. When we give gifts from our heart, from the things that are precious to us, we are saying something important not only about the recipient but about ourselves.

Parshat Terumah reminds us that giving of ourselves in this way is a gift that cannot be measured like other tangible gifts. It doesn’t matter if you send a post card every day, or one special card just because. It is the act of giving that will be noticed. It is the act of giving that stays with both parties long after the gift itself is gone. Our purpose in this world is to give and receive openly and honestly. When we do this, we are working together to build not just the Mishkan, but a sacred and holy community in which to live.

 

 

Give a Little, Gain a Lot – Parshat Terumah 5778

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I forget how old Shiri was when this started, but at some point she started to collect the change around the house and put it in the tzedakah box. It became a game; anytime there was any spare change hanging around, no matter where it was, she wanted it to go into the tzedakah box. This beautiful young child had no concept of saving for herself. Instead, her entire instinct when she found money was to give it to others. I credit Foundation School for most of this, but I also like to think that Duncan and I set an example of giving that she somehow has internalized.

The freeness Shiri exhibits in giving, the pure joy and open heart she wears, is something I hope she never loses. It’s also something I hope more adults will strive for, and the Torah this week shares that hope. This week we read Parshat Terumah, which reminds us of the importance of making these gifts just because we want to. The parshah focuses mainly on the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, including what the ark and decorative pieces will look like. The instructions are specific, like what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

The text begins with a commandment to give freely of your heart, which, according to the rabbis, means we shouldn’t give begrudgingly. I think of all the times I’m asked to add a dollar to my order at the grocery store for this or that cause, or the very big asks at the half dozen charity dinners we attend each year. Sometimes I’m excited to give and support the cause, but we typically give because we feel an obligation. According to the Torah, that is simply not what counts. Giving to feel the pure joy of a three-year-old putting money in a tzedakah box is the expectation.

Dressy Casual – Parshat Terumah 5777

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I try to dress with versatility in mind. What I mean by this is I like to choose outfits that can go from casual to dressy and anywhere in between. Knowing that my workdays start on the floor with preschoolers and also include learning with senior citizens and teenagers at various times throughout the day, I need to have an outfit that can change and move with me. Luckily the fashion industry has embraced this trend with reversible sweaters, dresses that look great with boots or heals, and shiny accents to take you from daytime to a night out. Versatility means being able to roll with the punches, adapting to new situations as they come.

One of the reasons I’m passionate about and dedicated to Conservative Judaism is the versatility in a tradition that allows me to engage with my past and present together. Our Torah is filled with laws that were meant to govern a certain society, yet we can still see our current world within its words, whether they talk about how to treat each other or the environment.

This week we read Parshat Terumah, which focuses mainly on the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) including what the Ark and decorative pieces will look like. The instructions are specific in terms of what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

It’s worth noting the durability and flexibility of the materials that are called for. The Ark that is fashioned in this week’s portion is made of both gold and wood. Gold is beautiful, durable, and precious and can symbolize the unending value and beauty of the commandments that it will hold. Wood is from a living, growing source, which tells us of the importance of God’s revelation, which continues to grow with the times. The Torah is both versatile and valuable, and its clothing reflects that.

The main reason I write these d’vrei Torah is because the lessons of trust, honesty, compassion, and bravery are timeless. We are blessed with a tradition that is beautiful in its antiquity and that still manages to change and grow with us as our world evolves.