Parashat Terumah: Willing Hearts Can Build the World with Love

It is hard to know which was a more powerful example of communal solidarity: The immediate crowd-funding response to the vandalism at the Chesed Shel Emet Jewish cemetery in St. Louis by Muslim activists Linda Sarsour of MPower Change and Celebrate Mercy’s Tarek El-Messidi, or the fact that within a matter of hours they had surpassed the initial $20,000 goal. Then, less than a week later, when the Mt. Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, Tarek El-Messidi abandoned his travel plans and was one of the first people on the scene, helping to lift toppled stones, and pledging to use funds from the now $130,000 collected, to aid in restoration efforts in Philadelphia, and anywhere else they might be needed.

Many members of the American Muslim community gave of themselves — their money, their verbal condemnation of the attacks, their physical presence to volunteer at the cemeteries and stand together with Jews against such anti-Semitic actions. The spontaneous outpouring of support moved me tremendously, and made me think immediately of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah.

 In the opening verses of Parashat Terumah, the Torah imagines that God declared to Moses to instruct the people: Asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham — Make me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among the people (Exod. 25:8).  The text tells us that all those with a willing heart (nediv libo), were to bring gifts to build the sanctuary, but the structure was not really where God would dwell.  God would dwell in the effort of the people in the ways they came together to create something of beauty, of sanctity, and of presence.

In a touching midrash, the rabbis teach that the Tabernacle was built in response to a human need to build something for God.  Yet, the Sanctuary was not a gift to God, but the opportunity to build it, was considered a gift from God in recognition and celebration of the people’s growth, following the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the law. It remains an important lesson that the Torah emphasizes that the mishkan (the sanctuary) was built through the generous outpouring of the Israelites’ hearts and hands (Exodus 35:20-29).

The building of the Mishkan — the temporary, travelling sanctuary — was an effort to strengthen the immanence of the divine presence, and bring God into the hearts of humanity.  Just as everyone whose heart moved them was able to bring something to the creation of that sacred space, so too can we attribute the spontaneous support from the Muslim community to come from the willing responsibility to stand up in the face of such desecration.

The Jewish community is not alone in needing and experiencing willing hearts and minds to stand together against hate. Since early January four mosques across Texas, Washington State, and Florida have been destroyed or partially destroyed, and in response, more than $1 million has been raised to help rebuild the mosque in Victoria, Texas specifically by Americans of all stripes, moved by the need to restore sanctity.

Of course, no one should have to wait for such a situation to invite the nediv lev — the willing heart/mind — to lead an effort to come together in support of community. Sometimes, however, our shared suffering can lead to shared celebration.

The three days amidst the trembling mountains, lightening and thunder of Sinai changed the Israelites forever, but those moments were fleeting.  Building the mishkan was a way for them to have a constant reminder of what was at the core of their effort.  The people worked to build a sacred space themselves that would invite the divine presence into their hearts and the people. 

The physical sanctuary did not possess intrinsic holiness any more than graves at a cemetery contain the souls of the departed. The Hebrew word b’tocham can also be rendered as “In the midst of their toch” — their innermost place, the hollow of the soul that God wishes to fill.  Where is the toch?  In the sacred center of the people, the place that comes to life through testimony, presence, connection, and the sacred.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk taught that that the text says “among them” and not “within it” in order to teach that each person must build a sanctuary within her or his heart; then God’s presence will dwell among them.  When the Kotzker Rebbe was asked, “Where does God dwell?”  He answered, “In every place we let God in.”

These are difficult days in America.  It is up to each of us to cultivate a willing heart and then to “build this world with love” as the Psalmist teaches (89:3), so that God can indeed dwell amongst the efforts of people to transform the world in holiness.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy, Waters of Eden Mikvah and Education Center, and Jewish Family Service of San Diego. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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