Let Them Make Me a Sanctuary, and I Will Change the Toilet Paper

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 bathroom signvehicle 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.

Investing in Oil, Lighting our Future

We are perhaps all familiar with the story of Hanukkah, which begins this coming Tuesday night. In the second century BCE, the Jewish community was under the tyrannical rule of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who imposed a series of harsh anti-Jewish measures on the population. He forbade the practice of Judaism, imposed Hellenizing policies and event went so far as to turn the Temple in Jerusalem—the most holy spot and the center of Jewish life at the time—into a shrine for idol worship.

A band of rebels led by a priest named Mattathias and his sons, known as the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greek army. They succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks, establishing an independent Jewish state and recapturing the Temple.

That is the rough history, the story that we tell. The details always add more nuance to the general narrative, but the story provides some key understandings of why we celebrate Hanukkah: a celebration of Jewish identity, the value of religious tbh-3liberty, the importance of communal self-determination.

And then, of course, there is the folklore associated with the story, primarily the story of the oil. As the story goes, after the defeat of the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple. They removed any evidence of idol worship and rededicated (Hanukkah means “dedication”)the Temple to Jewish practice. A key part of Temple practice was the menorah—a candelabrum that was continuously lit. (The ner tamid “eternal light” in our contemporary synaogues are meant to recall this light). The Maccabees found only enough sanctified oil to last for one day, when lit however it lasted for eight.

The volume of one vial of oil multiplied eight-fold. Some call this the miracle of Hanukkah. Others may call it a very successful return on investment.

It’s what we all hope will happen: we take something small and turn it into something big. Gardeners and farmers hold on to this hope each growing season—that from a small seed a large bounty will be produced. We use our communal resources to educate our children, hoping that as they grow they will use their knowledge and experience to make their own contribution to community and society.

And in the financial world, we put aside some money now, invest it and let it grow so we can reap the benefits of it later.

As a Jewish community in Olympia, as we celebrate that investment in oil futures that we mark on Hanukkah, we are in the process of investing in our own future with the Building Strength Capital Campaign.

It has been 10 years since we moved into our new home at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, and now is the time to secure the future of this home by building an endowment that will allow us to care for our sacred communal space in perpetuity. We have never had an endowment at TBH, and we are one of the few congregations in the area that does not. Our building requires a lot of care and attention, and our congregational leadership has wisely decided that rather than come hat-in-hand each time we need to do a maintenance project, we build an endowment that will pay out over time the costs associated with upkeep and repair.

[And our congregational leadership has planned this out, developing a spreadsheet of projected maintenance and replacement projects over the next 30 years.]

We know that a community or congregation is not defined by a physical structure. Our building does not make us who we are: a community dedicated to Jewish tradition, to education, to communal service, to social justice, to love and support. But our building gives us a place to live out our ideals and values, and provides us a central address where we can connect and make our Jewish home.

And not just for us. Our building has become a gathering place for other organizations, has hosted community events and concerts, has provided a warm shelter for the homeless.

The Building Strength Capital Campaign has been progressing very successfully, but we need more support. I have pledged, the Board has pledged, many community members have pledged. I invite you to join me in this endeavor. You can click here for the campaign materials and a pledge form.

Unlike our last capital campaign that produced our building, we won’t get something exciting to look at out of this one. An investment account and the promise of a future roof replacement are not very thrilling, I know. But we are investing in something more important—an idea. The idea that the Jewish presence in Olympia is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community in Olympia are valuable to us and to the generations to come.

We would do well to remember this as Hanukkah approaches. For while the story of the rededication of the Temple is the focal point of the holiday of Hanukkah, even giving the festival its name, we remember that the Maccabees were not just fighting for a building. They were fighting for the same idea: that a Jewish communal presence is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community are valuable throughout the generations.

And here we are, celebrating Hanukkah.

So as we celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, let’s recommit to the dedication of our Temple here in Olympia. If we do so, we can also witness the miracle of the light of Judaism continuing to burn bright.