When I was growing up, I could not take Jewish community for granted. My family did not take an active part in synagogue life. From the age of 10, I attended boarding school where I was one of two Jewish kids in my school. In preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I did not attend Hebrew School. Rather, I studied with a private tutor in Princeton, NJ to learn Hebrew, Jewish ethics, and a basic knowledge of Torah and Judaism. My family observed Shabbat dinner, and the major holidays at home and with friends. What we did have was a wonderful inter-faith community as my parents taught meditation and spirituality in their own way. Yet I did not have a strong sense of Jewish community. The synagogue we usually attended for High Holy Days was not a central community in my life throughout the year. When I started college, and Oberlin was a full third Jewish, I naturally gravitated to Jewish friends. It was the first educational environment of my life where Jewish kids were not in the clear minority. Only then did I fully realize what I had missed growing up. That while most kids had an experience of being part of a small minority as a Jew, most also had a strong and supportive Jewish community to nurture their Jewish identity and relationships. I did not have that. When my wise Hillel rabbi asked if I would lead High Holy Day services because he knew I could sing, he was singling out a talent he knew I could offer to the community. He also correctly guessed that recruiting me as a student chazzan would empower my own learning and connection with Jewish tradition and meaning in a multitude of ways. My becoming a rabbi was in no small part a calling that came from knowing the importance of a meaningful, supportive, Jewishly nurturing community to call one’s own. Not because I had that. But precisely because I did not. Spiritual Jewish community is not something any of us can afford to take for granted. In fact, nurturing it takes work, commitment and great care. It requires giving. And through the experience of giving, receiving more in turn.
The Hebrew word, t’rumah, from the root resh, vav, mem “rum,” “to be exalted,” “to be uplifted,” means: to be lifted out and set apart for a higher purpose. (Hirsch, 537) It is often translated as offering of the heart. When we think of gifts that individuals in a community can bring to help create holy community, one of the most powerful is the gift of sharing of our lives. The gift of stories and the gift of vulnerability. The Sfat Emet teaches: “…Each one of Israel has a particular portion within Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together. That is why Torah is called ‘perfect, restoring the soul’ (Ps. 19:8). We become one through the power of Torah; it is ‘an inheritance of the assembly of Jacob’ (Deut. 33:4). We receive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us…
The same was true of the building of the Mishkan. Each one gave his own offering, but they were all joined together by the Mishkan, until they became one. Only then did they merit Shekhinah’s presence.” [Rabbi Yehuda Alter of Ger, the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Green, ed., 121].
What are these offerings that each individual Israelite gave freely of their hearts to the Mishkan, in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah? The offerings were physical gifts that became the furnishings of the Mishkan, the traveling Temple in the wilderness. In our community, yes there are physical things individuals can offer up for the purpose of supporting this community and helping it thrive. Yet another free-will offering we can bring is our personal experience, the stories of our Jewish journeys, of our struggles and deepest tunnels, of the challenges we have faced, both those we have overcome and those that are ongoing. When I understand the light of another person’s soul, I am inspired to rekindle the lamp of Jewish feeling and commitment within myself. In sharing of ourselves in a vulnerable way, we truly receive from one another as the Sfat Emet teaches, “the distinctive viewpoint of Torah that belongs to each of us.” (Sfat Emet).
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch teaches the difference between business and Torah study. He says the difference is that in trade, when two people exchange an item, one gains something but becomes bereft of something else. In Torah study, when two people exchange interpretations of meaning, each person gains the insight of both perspectives. The same is true of a synagogue community: When we share our stories, our journeys and spiritual lessons from our own lives, in other words, our Torah, the entire community benefits. We all become stronger as we better understand one another and realize the richness each of us has to add to this community and that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.
This week, I met with a non-Jewish seeker who is deeply interested in Judaism and attending Torah Study and adult-learning opportunities with us at Sinai. I asked her what appeals to her most about Judaism. She said, “people can argue about what they believe, and that’s okay. No one gets offended or ostracizes you because you question commonly shared beliefs.” What she was attracted to was an aspect of both Jewish religion and culture: openly listening and even challenging one another leads to opening up deeper truths, and only serves to add to our own understanding. Someone else’s distinctive viewpoint – even if it is drastically different than our own– becomes a part of us. Not to say everyone is always right, but personal stories or journeys have no right or wrong. Furthermore, all viewpoints about life’s lessons and Torah truly belong to each of us. It’s for this reason that the Talmud maintains minority opinions even when Jewish law explicitly sides with the opposite viewpoint. Similarly, every Israelite, rich and poor, Cohen or Reubenite, righteous or not, who brings a free-will offering of the heart is accepted and welcomed. Each gift helps create the Mishkan for God to dwell among the people. And serves to beautify and amplify the ritual vessels most central to the Mishkan: the ark, the table, the altar and the menorah. When anyone of you brings a story of discovery, a story of self into community, the possibility of God truly dwelling among us grows brighter.
Adonai spoke to Moses saying, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, terumah; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Ex. 25:1-2)
I am not the only one in this community with a unique story or Jewish journey. We will have an opportunity this evening for sharing of personal stories and journeys that led us to this sacred community, here at Sinai. We’ll make Kiddush and motzi, take a plate of Oneg food, thank you Lebovics for sponsoring, and sit down together to listen to just a few people’s stories. Shabbat shalom.