Finding sanctity in the home, community and in the Divine

Shabbat Zachor

Exodus 25:1-27:19

I Kings 5:26-6:13

Deuteronomy 25:17-9

I Samuel 15:2-34

by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

We build many things in the course of a lifetime. We build homes, relationships and families to create places of safety and comfort to shelter us. We build in our professional work, seeking to make a name for ourselves, make a difference, even create things that will live after we are gone. And we may participate in collective building projects, in which we contribute our small part to the creation of structures within which the community's holy work may be done.

Parashat Terumah, in which the Torah tells us of God's command of the Israelites to create the desert mishkan, or sanctuary, invites us to reflect on different ways to build, and how to make these structures places of holiness.

The first act of building in the Torah was the construction of the Tower of Babel. In this communal building project, the goal was self-aggrandizement. Humans sought to express their own power, challenging the power of the Divine. "Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves…"(Genesis 11:4).

The Book of Exodus describes two prime examples of communal creations. They are mirror images of one another: One is the essence of holy creative activity; the other, the paradigm of communal idolatry.

The building of the Golden Calf, which we will read about two weeks from now, represents the ultimate in communal energy gone awry. Unable to cope with their mounting fear that Moses — or worse, God — has abandoned them, the people build an idol as a temporary object of worship. Desperately anxious for reassurance from Moses, they are driven to worship the work of their own hands rather than the unknowable God.

The collective project of sanctuary building described in our parashah is described before the story of the Calf. But many commentators suggest that, in commanding the building of the mishkan, God anticipated the people's need for a concrete focal point of worship in the camp. The mishkan, the result of both divine command and the entire community's good-hearted generosity, is the essential act of communal creation. Here, the community joins to build a holy place.

What, then, makes the difference between a holy act of creation and one based in hubris, ego or idolatry? Perhaps intention makes all the difference. Rashi expresses this point in his characteristically terse and elegant style. On the verse in which God issues the command, "Take for Me a gift" (or, in Everett Fox's more literal translation, "a raised-contribution"), Rashi comments that God means to say, "Take for Me — for My name" (Exodus 25:2).

Surely, the building of the mishkan, like any communal project, requires generous giving: Amounts matter. Yet, this text makes clear that intention is essential. The gifts, the contributions to the collective, must be made in God's name, not in the name of self-aggrandizement, in the pursuit of honor or credit, or in penance for other wrongs. Such gifts must come from the heart. As the rabbis put it, "Rachamana liba ba'ei," "God desires the heart."

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav suggests another criterion for holy community building. For him, too, the construction project builds on far more than the specific materials listed in the text. "Every person brings a donation of the good that is in his heart. For the sanctuary was built from the good that was found deep in every Jew."

Rashi quotes from Exodus 25:3-4, "Gold and silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns; fine linen and goats' hair," and then adds, "Each and every person brought the fine, special feature that was her own special point, in her own special way" (Itturei Torah, vol. 3, p. 205).

In holy communal work, everyone's contribution is accepted and affirmed. Each person brings what she can, each in her own special way. It is recognized that the whole depends on each of these special parts. Each gift, no matter how small, is a gift of the self and essential to the whole.

Every sanctuary that we seek to build — in a friendship, in our home, in our synagogue, in our communal work — is enriched by our willingness to incline our hearts toward heaven, and our awareness that everyone involved has his or her own unique and treasured role to play. May we be given the opportunity to build truly holy places — in our families and in our community — places where the Divine may dwell.