For Jews around the world, this past year has challenged our sense of community and collective prayer, leaving many struggling to understand why God locked us out of our own shuls. While the topic burned in our souls when the pandemic broke out almost a year ago, for better or worse, many of us have gotten used to the fact that, at least in Israel, almost no one prays in shul anymore.
While this reality affects each individual and congregation in a unique way, our community – Congregation Shirat David in Efrat — finds itself in a particularly interesting place, as we are in the midst of building a brand new shul. How ironic that we find ourselves homeless, as we watch the physical structure of our shul getting bigger and sturdier each and every day.
For many of us, it has been heartbreaking to daven outdoors, banishing the Holiest of Holies to parking lots, street corners, parks, and balconies. We miss the intimacy of a closed space and the awe-inspiring glory of entering a designated home for ritual and prayer. We long for protection from the elements and yearn for true belonging, gathering, and togetherness. For some, it may have been refreshing, in a confusing way. To daven alone — casually, comfortably, at our own pace — the chazzan and shaliach tzibur for a unique congregation of one.
We all know that, even once the threat of Covid fades away, life will never return to exactly as it was before. Our work-life balance, awareness of our own fragility, and relationship to our social needs have all been rocked to the core. People cannot go through a period as intense as this past year and emerge unchanged. Naturally, our shuls and minyanim will change too. Although we all assume that things will be different, no one knows exactly what they will look like. We have been presented with the rare and beautiful opportunity to build our communities from scratch, with greater understanding and intention than ever before.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, God commands Moshe to tell Am Yisrael to bring terumot — contributions of materials that would be used to construct the mikdash.
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ”
“Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart desires, you shall take My offering.” (Exodus 25:2)
This sanctuary, a dwelling place for God on earth, will be made from gold, silver, and copper, wool of royal colors, linen, animal skins, wood, oil, spices, and precious gems. As the Children of Israel continue their journey through the desert, they will dismantle, carry, and rebuild this mikdash in each place they camp — an elaborate, transportable food truck for the soul.
What turns something into a true terumah? In our parsha, a terumah refers to an object that has been voluntarily designated as different, separated from the rest of the physical world for an elevated purpose. As we begin to dream about the return to shul, I can’t help but wonder what each and every one of us can contribute to the formation of these sacred spaces. How can we transform our very presence into a holy terumah?
Throughout the hardships of this past year, we have all had the opportunity to become greater and more elevated than we were before. As we have risen and fallen through the juggling act of everyday life, through the bizarre chagim and shabbatot alone, through the endless Zoom meetings, through the unpredictable opening and closing of our schools, homes, and hearts, perhaps we have become people with a higher state of awareness. As we have journeyed back and forth between loneliness, grief, and fear, stress, loss, and exhaustion, closeness, quiet, and intimacy, you and I have learned to appreciate the true meaning of family, friendship, and community, the real purpose of a Beit Knesset, a space for holy gathering. As someone blessed to live in Eretz Yisrael, I know that I have also developed an even greater level of appreciation for the privilege we have to be here.
When we unlock the abandoned doors of our shuls, sweep away a year’s worth of dust, and fill the seats to maximum capacity, it will surely be a wonderful moment. But will it be a terumah? A terumah calls on each of us to bring a higher sense of consciousness to our holy spaces. A deeper understanding of whoever I thought I was and whatever I thought talking to God was all about. A greater ability to be in tune with how much love Hashem has for each and every one of us, and the whole world – despite it all.
“וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם“
“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
May we all dig deep and turn our shuls into sanctuaries built from real terumot, from elevated beings, intentions, and ideas. Perhaps then, Hashem may grace us with His presence in a way that elevates the entire world, like never before.