Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Parashat Terumah: Thinking about the Temple in Waterville

Today I heard one of the finest senior sermons of the year written by my classmate Jill. She spoke of the profound holiness, joy, and commitment that she had found in all of the small congregations she had served around the country. Even though the congregations she has served have not been the largest or most "prestigious," she has been moved consistently by the homemade meals they have cooked and the commitment that they have made to keep their communities alive. As I heard her message, it resonated profoundly.

She brought a famous midrash on Exodus 25:2-3 in order to illustrate her point. The Torah text states:

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.2 'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.
ג וְזֹאת, הַתְּרוּמָה, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ, מֵאִתָּם: זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

3 And this is the offering which you shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass.
The midrash interprets what these gold, silver, and brass offerings are:

This teaches that the Holy One Blessed He showed them three offerings: one of tabernacle, one of the First Temple, and one of the Second Temple, as it says: gold, silver and brass.

Gold- to reflect the Tabernacle that Moshe made, which was beloved by the Holy One Blessed be He as gold.

Silver-this is the First Temple that Shlomo built of which it is written: silver was not valued at the days of Shlomo at all (Chronicles 9).

Brass- this is the Second Temple that was missing five things: the Ark, the Ark-cover, Cherubim, (heavenly) Fire and Holy Spirit. (Yalkut Shimoni 5,7)

God loved the most simple structure, the Tabernacle or mishkan, the most. This most precious and beloved mishkan (which literally means dwelling place) was made with materials gathered in the desert. It was constructed with the voluntary offerings given by every Israelite. The larger and more elaborate the structure, the more that a) precious things were taken for granted and 2) Torah and God were forgotten.

While we in Waterville may have many challenges, I think that our community is most like the mishkan. The attributes of this congregation that I cherished from the moment I entered this holy community were: 1) authenticity 2) family and 3) commitment.

I will never forget the first voluntary offerings I experienced in Waterville: the homemade food from everyone in the community, reflecting the flavors and tastes of each individual member and family. Homemade muffins, tomatoes from your gardens, rice and beans, mac and cheese. How refreshing, and how novel, to pray and live in a community where people share their homes and their hearts at the monthly synagogue potluck.

Always in my mind is the sight of the older kids in the congregation from high school and middle school playing with our pre-bar and bat mitzvah age kids in the library. The kids in our community have grown up together, care for one another, and take joy in each other. This aspect of our community is also unique, and could only come as the result of quality families who have chosen to maintain Jewish life in a town where it is a (rewarding) challenge to do so.

Like in so many small communities, the amount of effort and energy that needs to be dedicated by a committed core is enormous. However, as a result, the experience is far more meaningful. We must consistently encounter a lesson that is just as relevant in a big city as it is in a small town, but is more rarely learned in cities with large Jewish communities: it takes effort to be Jewish. Value comes with a price. And when we endure, acknowledge, and celebrate our Jewish commitments, it changes who we are, how our children perceive the value of being Jewish, and the impact we can make on our greater communities.

It is our simplest and most earnest offerings that are the most precious and beloved. It is on this week of Parashat Terumah, literally this story of giving, that I appreciate being a member of Beth Israel Congregation. This semester, I am looking forward to working with the congregation on recognizing its value, its life, and all the potential that it possesses when we acknowledge our many gifts and riches.

Shabbat Shalom.