Five years ago, my brother requested an unusual 50th birthday gift. He asked if we would join him to work for a couple of days in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. We readily agreed. On our last day there, we explored neighborhoods beyond the severely damaged St. Bernard Parish, where we had joined a remarkable gathering of volunteers of all ages from across the world.
When we drove by an abandoned synagogue, we stopped the car to read the inscription over the once welcoming front doors: "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." The graceful Hebrew letters were embellished with crowns like the calligraphy in the Torah scroll. A simple building that had been the home of Congregation Beth Israel now stood empty. And I wondered, does this ruin, and its inscription, simply remind us of the impermanence of all human endeavors? Or is this a reflection of the impossibility of creating a home for the Holy One who is found everywhere?
"Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."
This week's parshah, Terumah — and nearly one-third of the book of Exodus — provides detailed instructions for creating and outfitting a dwelling place for God, variously called a mishkan, or tabernacle, and an ohel mo'ed, a tent of meeting. We have no historical evidence that these structures were ever actually built. Yet questions about building a house for God remain. How can mortals create a space that is sanctified or set aside (mikdash)?
The medieval poet Judah Halevi asks, "God, where shall I find You? And where shall I not find You? The whole earth is full of your glory!" Before we invest in need assessments, appoint strategic planning and building committees, before we solicit bids from architectural firms, Jews who seek to create a sacred community need to ask other questions.
How can we create sacred spaces in our hearts and our lives, sanctuaries that enable us to find some respite from the tumult and demands of the world? Each of us longs for spaciousness, for room to stretch our limbs and our spirits. All of us seek, at some time, sanctuary from the cacophony of the world.
How can we, first individually and then collectively, set aside places which invite holiness, however we name the quiet, safety and calm of God's presence. Parashat Terumah directs the Israelites in the construction of a physical space, detailing the colors and dyes, the materials and methods of the completion of a space that is not only for God, but for those who seek God's presence.
Parashat Terumah invites us to consider how creating sanctuaries of the heart is a necessary first step in constructing buildings that will serve as sacred spaces for the development and nurturing of community.
In April 2010, Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans broke ground for their new building. This Orthodox synagogue is now located next door to Gates of Prayer, a Reform congregation that welcomed the members of Beth Israel after the Hurricane.
The two communities now share a playground and more as they continue, together, to sustain Jewish life in New Orleans. The artists' rendering of the new entry shows that Beth Israel continues to welcome all to find God's presence within — and beyond — its walls, with these words: "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected] For more information on the New Orleans synagogues, visit: reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1594.