I read this morning online about a teacher who gives her fifth grade students a piece of paper every Friday afternoon. She asks them to write down the names of four children with whom they would like to sit the following week. The children know that their requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one classmate whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen all week. All of the papers are privately given to her. Then, she looks at the ballots after the students have gone home, seeking to discover these patterns:
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who doesn’t even know who to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
As she explained to one of the parents, she isn’t looking to set up a hierarchy of exceptionalism or popularity. She is looking for children who are lonely, who are struggling to connect with others, whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers.
She hopes to do all that she can to teach children how to make friends, how to join a group, and how to share the best of themselves with their community. The notes even help her identify who is being bullied, and who is doing the bullying.
The parent who wrote this piece asked the teacher how long she has been using this system. The reply – Ever since Columbine.
This teacher realizes that helping students create connections with others is the best way to prevent them from becoming disconnected and lonely and angry, so much so that they may find a way to get attention with no regard or consideration for other people and their very existence. The writer of this piece concluded that this teacher was not only building community – she was also saving lives.
The Torah reading for this Shabbat, TERUMAH, presents the command to the Israelites to do something very special and positive for their community. These former slaves, who had already resorted to complaining about leaving Egypt, and would do so again and again, were offered an opportunity to take part in a wondrous and significant project. One might call it the first Sanctuary building fund! Yet, it was more than that. The Israelites were asked to bring gifts which we might call “in-kind” contributions, for the building of the center of Israelite worship in the wilderness. This was not a requirement. The Torah was clear that only those “whose hearts so moved them” should bring gifts. In order to shape a holy space among the people, their donations had to be voluntary, not mandated. It had to come from the depth of their being. They had to believe in the process and the final result of creating a sanctuary –a MIKDASH.
The command from God was accompanied with this divine caveat about the final product – “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” I can still hear the rabbi of my childhood saying that it doesn’t say – “that I may dwell in it.” These gifts, and the Sanctuary they would be used to create, would help people feel that God was a loving and supportive presence in their midst. The Sanctuary would remind them that God and godliness were intrinsic in the web of human relationships that held together this new community of free people.
There is one aspect of the text that is not clear – what about those whose hearts didn’t move them? Did they feel left out? Were they they the ones who complained so much during the Israelites’ journeys? Or, were they being given the space to grow into the heartfelt belief and desire to give to their community? It would have been counterproductive to have a sanctuary that was the result of the participation of only some of the people.
In his commentary on the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman suggested that we need to understand the phrase “bring me gifts” in its literal sense – VAYIKCHU LI T’RUMAH – take for me gifts. Friedman proposes that that it wasn’t only the people whose hearts had moved them to give who were involved in this ancient capital campaign. Those who were not at a point of being ready to give had a task, too. They would be the ones TO TAKE - to collect the donations and then bring them to Moses. It doesn’t explicitly say that in the text, but it is comforting to know that at least one commentary suggested that everyone had a role in making the creation of the sanctuary come to fruition. With everyone involved, the people could truly feel God’s presence in the Oneness that kept them together as a community moving towards their promised land.
Any community should do what it can to give all members a chance to participate and to shine, to develop partnerships and friendships with each other, and to feel that they are truly valued as individuals who have something special and unique to contribute. This applies to congregations, cities, states, nations and schools. I have been reading about girls in Orthodox schools who are asking for the right to wear t’fillin at regular services held during the week. Most rabbis who are charged with making the rules in those institutions say that these girls can’t obligate themselves to follow rituals that are reserved only for men. They claim that these girls are “cherry-picking from the law” to gain a right to which they are not entitled. One woman who had been in an Orthodox school in the past remembered one rabbi who was her teacher who found ways to give girls in his school an opportunity to adopt such rituals as their own. That type of rabbi and teacher, she said, is the one that will be remembered by students as highlighting an important Jewish lesson: that when one’s heart is moved to make a commitment, her or his desire should be honored and affirmed.
So the message of this parashah, in a way, is to take people where they are at – if their hearts are already moved to take part in a communal task, encourage them – and if their hearts aren’t moved just yet, give them the chance to grow in their desire to give of themselves. Draw the circle of community as large as possible so that everyone can feel that they belong. That is the best way to assure that God will dwell among us, holding us together in bonds of support, commitment, dedication, and love. So may it be for us, in all of our communities.