I wasn’t quite sure this morning how to put into words what I wanted to say tonight.
So I attended to a few other tasks to let people in our area (namely, the El Paso Jewish Voice) know, through sharing a series of photos, what we have been doing over these last few weeks. That included bringing our congregation together to welcome new members and to enjoy each other’s company at our Erev Simcha dinner, sharing a joint dinner-dessert between our Temple leadership and the leaders of Sonoma Springs Covenant Church next door, celebrating Tu Bish’vat to give the natural world the attention it deserves, and bringing the Las Cruces community into our space to hear powerful words from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961. King’s declarations have reverberated through the decades down to us. His message resonates with us even still. And we will learn more about a period in Jewish history when Jews in Spain flourished as we hear Robyn Helzner’s presentation this coming Monday night, February 19. We are well aware that the aftermath of that often-titled “Golden Age” was not golden at all. Yet, we also know that actions of hatred and explusion failed to ultimately destroy the spirit of Jews and Judaism in the centuries that followed.
In the last couple of days, I have been watching the news all too much, and reviewing my Facebook newsfeed, but not just for expressions about policy. You see, sometimes we become so interconnected with people that we don’t realize when we might be somewhat closely touched either by national tragedy or triumph.
I have been reading the posts of rabbis serving in or near Parkland, Florida who are now attempting to bring healing to their communities. I saw the message of a woman whose brother was laid to rest this past October after losing his long battle with 9/11 related cancer…only to have her niece be one of the students who was murdered on Wednesday. One of our good family friends had been at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School many times, as have some of our own congregants.
There are statements I could make about my opinions on what should be done to prevent such terror and horror from happening again. What is on my mind tonight, however, is embodied in the title I assigned to my D’var Torah for this Shabbat, “What more can we give?”
The beginning of this week’s parashah, Terumah, directed the Israelites to bring gifts, to offer whatever their hearts moved them to bring, with those offerings specifically going to the construction of the MISHKAN, the Tabernacle, the Israelite house of worship in the wilderness. This section presented a list of suggested items, much like we do today when we ask for donations for the many causes that we support as a congregation. Then it said this, “And let them make Me a sanctuary--V’ASU LI MIKDASH-- that I may dwell among them.”
The main interpretation of that verse that has come down to me from my past is from Rabbi William B. Silverman at my home Temple. He probably shared this explanation more than once. He would comment, “ The verse doesn’t say, ‘Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT.’” It wasn’t about building a place for God to live in. The Bible would, eventually, profess that the God of the Israelites was the One who created everything, who had power over all nations and all national leaders. The Eternal One came to be thought of as an unseen divine source of strength, wisdom and hope who could save us when we need help, inspire us when we seek to create community, teach us when our knowledge is lacking, and comfort us when we are mired in grief and sadness.
Of all weeks, certainly, this is a week when we need wisdom. We need hope. We need greater knowledge and understanding. We need inspiration. We need comfort.
And, I believe, we need a new vision for how we see society, human community and the world.
“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” It’s not about a building. It’s about presence. It is about God being both transcendent – out there – and immanent – right here, next to us, inside of us, around us.
And if we believe that God is everywhere, in everything and everyone, then wherever God dwells is….a sanctuary – a MIKDASH.
Every place and every person person has the potential to be a center and focus of holiness.
But we know that we have recently witnessed people speaking and acting in modes that are far from holy.
Bullying. Dehumanization. Hatred. Violence. Belittling both the small and the great despite the goodness and kindness of those targeted. Harassment of all kinds, some focused on women that has led to the growth of a movement for honesty on the part of the victims that calls for apology and repentance on the part of the perpetrators, plus other expressions of harassment that seek, simply, to bring down specific individuals not due to wrongdoing, but because of their views, background, or place in life.
Destruction that seeks to sow only chaos and cruelty is not holy. Pushing others out of the way based on subterfuge and dishonesty is not holy. Taking out one’s frustrations and hurt on others is not holy.
What is holy? Healing. Offering support. Mutual respect. Dialogue based on forthright speech accompanied by true and genuine listening. Attempting to find those who hurt and ease their pain. Recognizing the contributions to the community of all people, including those who quietly and simply step forward without a desire for accolades.
I was touched this morning by the sharing of an article in Reader’s Digest online by Glennon Doyle Melton. She told of how she once met with her son Chase’s teacher to receive tutoring so that she could help her son with mathematics (long division) at home. She and her son’s teacher began to speak about the ways in which the teacher tries to assist students in building a strong class community.
The article continued: “And then she told me this.
Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else? Who can’t think of anyone to request? Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or ‘exceptional citizens.’ Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.” The teacher said that she had been doing this every week ever since Columbine in 1999. Glennon Doyle Melton continued: “This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it.
And what this mathematician [teacher] has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything—even love, even belonging—has a pattern to it. She finds the patterns, and through those lists she breaks the codes of disconnection. Then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s math.
All is love—even math. Amazing.
What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day, and altering the trajectory of our world.”
There was math – there were patterns and designs – that went into the building of the ancient Tabernacle. Those patterns could only come alive to create a holy space because people whose holy hearts moved them brought the raw materials out of what they had. They gave up something tangible to make something more, to gain something intangible and of infinite value: connection, community, a pathway to the sacred that could reside in them and among them and around them.
In those ancient gifts, there was love, hope, and commitment.
This teacher from the story and many of us try to act with love and offer hope to build a better world. We are committed to these efforts because we believe that every corner of our existence needs at least a little love and holiness.
In a week like this, may we not falter, as we seek to overcome the forces of greed, power, fear and cynicism in order to preserve the future of children who deserve to see the lives they envision come to fruition. And may we reach out in a way that reflects the words of the prayer on your handout, taken from Rabbi Chaim Stern’s holiday prayerbook, GATES OF JOY:
“God, be with all who are alone and lonely;
let them know that they have a Friend.
Hear those who speak but are not heard;
let them know that there is One who understands.
Take all who are afraid and give them hope; take those who have been hurt and give them courage.
Give us strength to make this world a place of peace and mercy. Help us know that You are with us and in us, whenever we work for a better life.”
May we do that work every day, knowing that there is always more that we can give.