D’var Torah, T’rumah: God’s Place in Communal Space

by Lucy H. F. Dinner

This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. Thisd’var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group.

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:2, 8).

The opening of Parashat T’rumah evoked definitive and divergent reactions from Temple Beth Or’s Torah study group. Theresa likes the lens of inclusivity: “accept gifts…from every person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2), including the women as well as the men. Ed sees the portion as laying out the game plan for forming community. Evelyn objects to the need for a specific place in which to meet God, saying that God is in each breath one takes. Anita clarifies that it is not just about setting up a camp but creating a spiritual place. Joe sees these opening phrases as a message to the pagan world that unlike the pagan’s idols that resided permanently in the King’s palace, the Israelite God, would “dwell among them” wherever they wandered. The powerful opening verses of the parashah draw the individual to God, God to the community, and the community of individuals to one another, all in the process of creating sacred space.

The genius of the Tabernacle’s construction is how it capitalized on individuals’ unique talents and contributions, and brought a physical element to the visceral experience of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai. It took the combination of unique talents of the entire community of Israel to bring together that assortment of colorful yarns, fine linens, acacia wood, and animal skins. The diversity of talent and contributions meant that no one person could claim the making of the Tabernacle was his or hers alone. The building project provided an integral, communal link for the Israelites in their joint accomplishment; and it gave each of them a unique connection to the Divine through the specific role each one played in the Tabernacle’s creation. The physical experience of building the Tabernacle sealed the covenantal bond of the receiving of the Ten Commandments. The Revelation they experienced as a community linked to communal action in constructing the Tabernacle was therein invested with abiding substance.

In Mark George’s commentary on this portion in Torah Queeries, he emphasizes the importance of the specific space the Israelites created to their integrity as a community. George shares: “Space is, in fact, social space, and how such space is created, organized, and given meaning is determined by the people and societies that use it. Therefore we need to read the Tabernacle as a reflection of Israel, which produced this space.1

The parashah’s lesson holds equal veracity for the integrity of congregational life today. How temples choose to create space has an impact on who will fill that space and the quality of the community’s ongoing investment in the space. Though most capital campaigns depend on twenty percent of the members to fund eighty percent of the expansion, without the commitment of the other eighty percent of the people, the integrity of the congregation’s community is at risk. Congregations built on the gifts of the hearts of their composite membership reflect the heart of community in their space.

The makeup of the bricks and mortar produce the institution; the commitment to the covenant—that invitation by the congregation asking God to dwell among them—transforms that institution into a sacred community. The genius of the building of a synagogue is not in its ability to introduce individuals to God. God’s Presence cannot be contained within the confines of a building any more than it can be within the walls of the Tabernacle. Individuals find God in snow-capped mountain peaks and in roaring waves slapping the ocean. Individuals find God in the solitude of meditation and the relief of calming a baby’s fears. Individuals encounter God in many places, but the genius of a congregation is in its ability to invite Divine Presence to suffuse the entire community. Only a congregation whose members’ hearts are joined by the desire to invite the Divine into their realm, can create a space where God may dwell among “them.” Individuals can and do find God anywhere; but it is the unique role of the congregation to bring God’s Presence to the community.

In an age glorifying individual gratification, even in connection with God, we have all but lost sight of the gift of the Divine for which we pray when everyone’s heart serves God in unified intention. “On that day Adonai will be one, and God’s name will be one.”2

1.  Mark George on “Terumah,” Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, eds., Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 103
2.  Aleinu, Elyse D. Frishman, ed., Mishkan T’filah (New York: CCAR Press, 2007), p. 591

Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.

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