Gifts of the Heart: Making School Communities Sacred (Parashat Terumah)

Imagine the scene. Moshe tells the entire community of Bnai Yisrael, not long after leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, to offer gifts for the construction of the desert mishkan (sanctuary). The people bring a remarkable array of precious metals, fabrics, animal skins, and precious stones—all from a group of people who had just fled after four hundred years of slavery!  Strikingly, Moses speaks of these gifts as gifts of the heart (“kol ish asher yidvenu libo,” “everyone whose heart is moved”). (Exodus 25:2)   Rashi reads the language “yidvenu libo” (“whose heart is moved”) as a description of generosity and good will.

Moshe’s command ends with the statement that the desert tabernacle is to be a sanctuary (mikdash), which will allow the divine presence to dwell among the community (“ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti b’tocham”). (Exodus 25:8) The sequence of the verses suggests an “if/then” connection, as if God had intentionally said, “If you bring Me gifts, I will dwell among you.”  In our community, too, do we get a sense that if we bring “gifts” to the community to help make it sacred, we will sense the divine presence?

Our school exists as a community because people step forward every day with acts of generosity. Every day, the staff of our school works so hard to make everything just right for the students.  Teachers go the extra mile to support students, encourage their learning, and help them to grow.  And students at our school perform acts of kindness every day – sharing part of their lunch with a friend, giving a special smile to someone who looks down, or inviting a new kid to their table or game. Think about how the help you have given to others, and that others have given to you, help build our community.

All schools need financial contributions from people in the community.  At the same time, it is the gifts of self – the offering of our own generous hearts – that are the most precious resources on which the life of a school depends.  Reading this week’s parsha and thinking about 9Adar which our school will commemorate next week, I find myself thinking about how we sustain and develop our sense of school community when we find ourselves in conflict with others.

It is not an easy thing to be part of a human community.  Different people have different styles, ways of expressing themselves, opinions, and different ideas of what this school community should stand for.

But how well do all these opinions and arguments serve our community?  When are our disagreements a wonderful part of a community which respects diversity and a way to explore important ideas?  And when do these arguments hurt people, damage relationships, and weaken our commitment to one another?

This week’s parasha brings us a vision of how to build community that honors a wide range of very different individuals.  The Sefat Emet (the Rebbe of Ger, in Warsaw of the late 19th Century) finds in the Torah’s description of the building of the mishkan a beautiful piece of wisdom about community life. The rebbe suggests that each person brought a unique gift to the collective effort of building the mishkan. Everyone contributed what they had, and the result was a miraculously beautiful and sacred whole.  The beauty was precisely in the variety of the gifts.  What if all of the Israelites had brought just precious stones or just animal skins?  How would it have been possible to build the sanctuary from just one kind of gift?  The communal project literally depended on each person giving in his or her own way.   Just as the splendor of the natural world depends on the infinite variety of flora, fauna, and creatures, so too is a community only as great as the diversity of its individual members.

Listen to the Sefat Emet’s  comment on our verse:

“The Midrash . . . offers a parable of two merchants, one who has silk and the other peppers.  Once they exchange their goods, each is again deprived of that which the other has.  But if there are two scholars, one who has mastered the Seder Zera’im (the Order of Seeds in the Mishnah) and the other who knows Seder Mo’ed  (the Order of Festivals in the Mishnah), once they teach each other, each has both S’darim.
…each Jew has a particular portion within the Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together.
The same was true in the building of the tabernacle.  Each one gave his (or her) own offerings, but they were all joined together by the tabernacle, until they became one.  Only then did they merit Shekhinah’s presence. (from The Language of Truth, The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, p. 121).

The rebbe quotes a midrashic teaching that if one person trades a possession with another person, each still has only one of the two possessions.  But if each teaches the other something he knows, each now has two teachings.  The idea of community is based on the understanding that together we have more than we would on our own.  The Sefat Emet teaches us to see that each of us has our own particular section of the Torah that belongs uniquely to us, and at the same time, we are joined together by the whole of the Torah.  During the building of the mishkan, each Israelite had his or her unique contribution to make, just like in building a sense of kehillah in our school, each of us has our own perspective, our own vantage point, our own  talents, our own piece of the truth.  Being in community requires that we all contribute what we have, and that we value the very different gifts that others bring, even when we feel that the community would actually be better if everyone were just like us.

It’s usually easy to appreciate differences when things are going smoothly.  But life with other human beings is difficult.  We irritate one another in all sorts of ways, knowingly and unknowingly.  We hurt one another.  We see things differently.  We wonder or resent why the others may act as they do. We forget that the other person is different than we are.  Others are supposed to be different than we are.   That’s obvious, until conflict erupts, and we may imagine that the community would be much better off if there were fewer differences!  We can get angry or frustrated, and can let our relationships weaken.  It takes a lot of generosity of heart in such moments to call to mind the wisdom of our parasha, remembering that the community depends on each person contributing exactly what is needed from them.

I am thinking about all of this because next week our school will mark the 9th of Adar.  On the 9th of Adar, approximately two thousand years ago, some traditional sources say that the initially peaceful and constructive conflict between two dominant Jewish schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, erupted into a violent and destructive struggle over a vote on eighteen legal matters, leading to the death of many rabbis and students (according to some sources, three thousand of them!).  According to other sources, there was no physical violence, but the 9th of Adar was the day that mahloket (controversy) first emerged between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, which itself was very challenging.

The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution (at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem) has called for Jewish communities around the world to observe this week, during which the 9th of Adar falls, as the worldwide Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, dedicated to promoting the important Jewish value of machloket l’shem shamayim (disputes for the sake of Heaven) or constructive conflict—disputes conducted in a positive, respectful and healthy way.   The 9th of Adar invites Jews and Jewish communities around the world to rededicate themselves to redifat shalom — a way of being in relationship in families, friendships, workplaces, and communities that appreciates difference and also acknowledges the underlying unity of all people, including those with whom we disagree.

The truth is, we build community – in our families, in our friendships, in our school– every day.  We bring the gifts of our hearts – the very best gifts that we have to give. When our hearts are generous enough, we remember that others are bringing the best that they have to give.  When others irritate us, or when interpersonal or communal conflict emerges, we need to remember the wisdom of this parasha, reminding us that building and maintaining a real community depends on our generosity of heart, on our willingness to stretch to understand another person’s perspective.  Our ability to turn our differences into mahlokot l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of heaven) – healthy and constructive arguments for the sake of the greater good – is what invites the Shechinah to dwell in our midst.  It is this generosity of heart that invites God into our lives.

May we grow hearts generous enough to appreciate those different from ourselves.  May we recognize that the strength and specialness of our school community depends on our ability to value all of these very different people.  May our kehillah, our community, – be a sanctuary, a safe place, in which all of us know that we are treasured as part of this community.   In that generous way of being with one another, may we welcome God’s presence in our community.

About Amy Eilberg

Amy is the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program, helping synagogues and Jewish organizations place the pursuit of peace in interpersonal relationships at the center of their communal mission. Amy is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Click here to read more.

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