Gifts of the Heart: Making Communities Sacred – Sermon for Parashat Terumah

Posted by Amy Eilberg on February 24, 2015
Topics: Rodef Shalom Resource, Divrei Torah, Terumah

Imagine the scene. Moses calls to the entire Israelite community, 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 frames 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.

Moses’ command ends with the striking 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 a causal relationship, as if God had intentionally said, “If you bring Me gifts, I will dwell among you.”  In our community, too, the presence of the divine is a function of the gifts that we bring to the community to help make it sacred.

Our synagogue exists because members step forward every day with acts of generosity.  Some make monetary donations to assure the continuity and well-being of the community.  Some contribute gifts of time—visiting the sick and the bereaved, welcoming newcomers, serving on congregational boards and committees, helping the office staff with routine and essential tasks, serving food after services on Shabbat, and so many more.

I am all in favor of financial contributions to our synagogue.  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 the synagogue depends.  In particular, I find myself thinking about how we nurture the fabric of our communal relationships when we find ourselves in conflict with others.

It is not an easy thing to be part of a human community.  Inevitably, different people have different personal styles, ways of expressing themselves, opinions about a range of issues, and visions of what this community should stand for.  Some might say that it is especially challenging to be part of a Jewish community, so full of strong opinions, high-pitched conversations, and disagreements.  For the most part, we like it this way.  We like the aphorism “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” We feel a certain pride in the contentious way we are with one another.

But how well do all these opinions and arguments serve our community?  When are our disagreements a beautiful part of the tapestry of communal relationships and a time-honored vehicle for exploring 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 donating 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 whole 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 orders.

The point is that each Jew has a particular portion within the Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together . . . We derive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us. . . .

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 we give a possession to another person, we are left with less than before.  But in communal life, we are enhanced because together we have more than we would on our own.  The Sefat Emet offers the remarkable image that each of us has our own particular section of the Torah that belongs uniquely to us, and at the same time, we are collectively joined together by the whole of the Torah.  The same is true, he says, of the building of the mishkan, in which each Israelite had his or her unique contribution to make.

In our community as well, each of us has our own perspective, our own vantage point, our own piece of the truth.  The communal endeavor requires that we all contribute what we have, and that we value the very different gifts that others bring, even when we fancy that the community would actually be better if everyone were just like us.

It’s relatively easy to appreciate diversity in community 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 scratch our heads – or quietly rage – at why the other acts as he does.  How can he act, speak or think that way?  Can’t she see that her view is just wrong?  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 the other was, well, more like me!  Such an attitude breeds frustration, anger, and weakening of relationships.  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.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav takes the point one step further.  Commenting on the same verse about each individual bringing his or her own gift, Reb Nachman says, “Everyone brings as an offering the goodness in his (or her) heart.  The mishkan was built from the essential good in the heart of every Jew . . . each person brought the special point within him (or her), in his (or her) own special way.” (Rebbe Nachman, cited in Itturei Torah, vol. 3, p. 205)

Rebbe Nachman says that the gifts the Israelites offered to the collective project of building a sanctuary were far deeper than the particular objects they gave.  Actually, each Jew offered the finest, most unique, and most sacred point within his or her heart and soul.  That was their contribution.  What would it be like if we looked around the shul and said to ourselves, “That person . . . and that person . . . and that annoying person over there . . . are bringing the very best of their own hearts to build this sacred place that we call our community”?

I am thinking about all of this because next Thursday is 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 sad and potentially destructive.  Both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds say that the day was as tragic as the day the golden calf was created. It was later declared a fast day, like other days of remembering tragedies throughout our history. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Laws of Fasts 580)

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 critical Jewish value of machloket l’shem shamayim (disputes for the sake of Heaven) or constructive conflict—disputes conducted in a positive, respectful and generative manner.  More broadly, 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 relationships, in our shul – 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 recall the wisdom of this parasha, reminding us that the sacred texture of community depends on our generosity of heart, on our willingness to stretch to understand another person’s perspective, our readiness to recognize the uniqueness and beauty of another human being in our complex community.  Our capacity to fashion 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, that makes every place a holy place.

May we grow hearts generous enough to appreciate those different from ourselves, and may we recognize that the strength and sanctity of the community depends on our ability to value all of these very different people.  May our kehillah kedosha – our own sacred community – be a sanctuary 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 bring God’s presence fully into our midst.

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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