This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is the Torah portion that launched a thousand capital campaigns.
Having transmitted the 10 commandments and other laws to Moses—the laws that will frame the covenant and give new organization and meaning to the newly liberated Israelites—God tells Moses to build a sanctuary, a tabernacle, that will serve as a physical center for the Israelites. At the beginning of Exodus 25 God says,
God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.
From this passage we learn that a physical space is important to serve as a vessel for divine energy, this physical space should be well appointed, and that the materials to build the structure should be freely offered and come from every member of the community.
What we don’t learn from this passage is that people are going to leave their dishes in the sink, wine is going to be spilled on the floor, the coffee maker is going to go on the fritz twice in one week for two different reasons and people are going to dump their garbage in your bins in the alleyway.
Physical spaces are important and inspiring. And require constant maintenance. There are tables to set up and take down, repair people to call and paper towel rolls to replace. And while when I went to rabbinical school I didn’t anticipate becoming a building manager, because of the size of our congregation some of these duties have fallen into my lap. Two weeks ago I attended a training at a small local church, and when the toilet began to overflow the immediate response of the trainers was to call the pastor, a colleague of mine. Needless to say, I understood. It can be tiring at times, and I sometimes feel that building concerns take me away from what I would like to be doing, or what I should be doing.
There are those times, however, that building maintenance work can be uplifting, and a vehicle for social justice. Recently at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we changed all six of our single-use restrooms, which were labeled “men” and “women,” to gender-neutral signage. There was seemingly no reason to maintain the signs as they were when we first built our building, and having bathrooms clearly marked for use by anyone of any gender is an important step towards inclusion and justice.
The change in signs was important because it also reflected the spiritual aspect of our community. For ultimately, the reason for a congregation or community to maintain a physical space is to reflect the spiritual nature of that community. Our space is a gathering place, a place for prayer, for study, for sharing, for connection, for social justice. Our space is a place to honor that important Jewish value that each one of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our space is a place for all of us.
And since it is a place for all of us, we should heed the words of the Torah in describing the Tabernacle, that the means to not only build it, but maintain it, should come from everyone. We recently held a successful campaign to create a building endowment, an important step. But there is more that one could do. So next time you see dishes in the sink, don’t ask who left them there, wash them. See a pile of dirt on the floor? Pick up a broom. Out of paper towels in the restroom? Don’t just tell the rabbi, ask how you can change the roll.
When we all pitch in to care for our sacred spaces, God dwells within.