Friday, February 19, 2010

Parashat Terumah - Sacred Space


Our Torah places tremendous emphasis on the importance of Sacred Time. In parashah after parashah, we learn about the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the Jewish day, and the Jewish lifecycle; of the rewards for fulfilling mitzvot at their appropriate times and the consequences of neglecting those same mitzvot; durations are set for the amount of time a person must spend outside the camp for having a status of impurity; and the number of days are fixed for the length of Divine celebrations. This emphasis on Sacred Time, on z’man, can result in a perception that Judaism cares about time but not Sacred Space. The second half of Exodus, however, with its focus on the nearly infinite details of the design and construction of the portable Tabernacle - the Mishkan - serves as the counterpoint to the focus on Sacred Time as it is all about the creation of Sacred Space.

As I think back to my years in rabbinical school, I clearly remember the stress placed on Sacred Time. From how to conduct a daily service to classes on Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, to how to the use the luach bet haknesset - the synagogue ritual calendar that tells you what to do on each day of the Jewish year - the emphasis was all about time and community. Yet in all my years of education at JTS, there was not a single class about designing a synagogue building, no course on the details of the construction of the Bet HaMikdash - The Temple in Jerusalem - and students who were assigned the parshiot of Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa, VaYakhel or Pikudei for their senior sermons all bemoaned their misfortune, with parashat Terumah famously referred to as parashat Trauma for the lack of interesting narrative or relevant holiday information.

As a People in exile, the emphasis on Sacred Time helped form Sacred Community that was not at all dependent on a physical Spiritual Center. The Sages who preserved Judaism after the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem did so by focusing on the Mikdash Me’at - the small sanctuary - namely, our soul. This Divine residence could travel with us wherever we found ourselves as individuals and as a community until the day when the Temple would be rebuilt in Jerusalem and all of the exiles would be re-gathered there. The focus on physical space and its sacred nature was placed entirely on a longing for returning to the Land of Israel with great emphasis on the reconstruction of a central Holy Place without spending much time on the physical details of that new place. Judaism as a religion and Jews as a People could therefore survive the exile and move nimbly from one place to the next without having to abandon the singular Divine Home, for each member of the community carried it within their own hearts and souls.

I had the good fortune of spending the past few weeks living according to Jewish time in The Place, one that gushes with sacred people, time, and places: The State of Israel. For most of those two weeks, I sat in the lobby of the Dan Panorama Jerusalem meeting with North Americans in Israel for the year, new candidates to serve as shlichim, members of our Israeli delegation, veteran shlichim who want to return to camp, and key members of our staff who live in Israel, either as native Israelis or Olim from North America. On some level, the lobby of the hotel was the antithesis of Sacred Space. It was undergoing renovations and there was the constant noise of construction: saws cutting stone for the floors and walls, hammers, vacuums, etc. Along with the noise came the putrid odor of burnt rubber when tubes were being cut and marble dust from the slicing of floor tiles. The lobby was darker and narrower than usual as the windows and large parts of the lobby were sealed off with drywall as the renovations took place. And let’s face it, hotel lobbies are generally not sacred spaces. At the same time, the lobby was imbued with the sacredness that is the person who comes to express a desire to bring a love of Israel to North Americans. At times, there were twenty or thirty people just waiting to meet with members of the Ramah directorate to share their special gifts and express their desire to be the link between our children and Israel. When all of these souls joined together in one room, they instilled it with kedushat hanefesh, the sanctity of souls.

Every once in a while during my trip, however, I would have to escape the hotel lobby, to breathe fresh air and remember that I was in Eretz Kadshenu - Our Holy Land. During those breaks, I was reminded of the importance of Sacred Space on at least five different occasions:

Prior to a business meeting at the Israel Museum, Sima Sayag, a shlicha and former rosh amanut (art director) who does special projects at camp, gave me a tour of the two exhibits that are currently open as the museum completes renovations: The model of Jerusalem during the period of the Second Temple and the Shrine of the Book, home to The Dead Sea Scrolls. Outside, in Jerusalem, I saw a model that I had not seen since Ramah Israel Seminar in 1983 when it sat on a hillside at the HolyLand Hotel. At its center lies a model of The Temple, The Sacred Space, the Permanent Divine Home, that replaced the portable Tabernacle when Jerusalem was established as the Capital of the Jewish People. It was glorious to see this model at the start of the week when we read our parashah, Terumah. The presence of the Shrine of the Book served as a perfect counterpoint to physical space as the Essenes placed great emphasis on sacred purity which, by extension, focuses on Holy Time, not to mention the thrill that comes with seeing pieces of our history that are thousands of years old.

Two former shilichot provided me with exposure to other Sacred Spaces in Jerusalem. One former shlicha gave me a tour of current archaeological digs taking place just outside the walls of the Old City in a place known as “Ir David” or “The City of David,” where she organizes events. Leaving aside the political implications of the dig and the way that archaeology is used to prove or disprove political issues, the ancient site is impressive and exudes holiness, place, and history. Here, one can stand at a place where Solomon may have been crowned king and where royal signets bearing the names of key characters in the books of Samuel and Kings were discovered.

Another former shlicha gives tours of Mt. Herzl, the Knesset, and the Supreme Court Building to high school students learning about democracy and Israel’s democratic institutions. I had only seen the Supreme Court from the outside and Ofir offered to give me a tour which I gladly accepted. It was great to be outside the hotel lobby for a bit.  The Supreme Court, representative of the centrality of the rule of law and its equal application to citizens, was both a meaningful and timely site to see. If you have not been inside the building on a previous visit to Israel, you should make sure to get there on your next visit. Every part of the building is artistic and intentional. The architects thought about everything from a perspective of meaning, imbuing the halls, the courtrooms and every inch of the building with some greater purpose than just looking nice. From the grand windows that look out at the city, designed to represent the need for a transparent court, to mirrors at the base of the entry wall representing the eternity of law, from the straight lines cut into the marble floors indicating the need for the law to be clear and straight to the curves in the ceiling designed to serve as the counterpoint to rigidness, namely the need for judicial discretion, the building is an inspiring reminder that Israel is a democracy where any citizen or resident can make a case in public, without fear and with the expectation of a fair hearing.

Even restaurants in Israel can be the venue for a Divine Encounter. On my last night in Jerusalem, I had the incredible experience of dining at Eucalyptus. Sitting just outside the walls of the Old City in the Artist's Walk, also known as Hutzot HaYotzer, Moshe Basson, the chef-owner, provides guests with a singular, historical dining experience. Each course of the chef’s tasting menu is accompanied by explanations of the ingredients, all of which - except for the tamarind - are chosen precisely because they are somehow connected to Torah, Tanakh and to the Land of Israel. Moreover, his explanations are flowing with citations of verses from Tanakh along with fascinating divre Torah. I have truly never had a more interesting or delicious culinary experience in any restaurant, ever, and Moshe makes it more than just interesting. He makes it Sacred - eating truly as though one is eating at the Altar, sitting just outside the home of the Temple Mount.

Finally, prior to leaving Israel this week, I spent my last few hours in the Tayyelet, the Haas Promenade, that overlooks Jerusalem from the Talpiyot neighborhood. I sat and watched as the sun slowly descended, creating burning reds, pinks and oranges against the darkening backdrop of blue. I pondered the contrast of new Jerusalem and old, of modern and ancient, of peace and strife. The setting of the sun reminded me of the tension between time and place. For now, Jerusalem and sacred place will have to continue to be a mishkan me’at - a small portable tabernacle - in my soul.

Returning to the U.S., I am thinking about the task that stands before us as the summer approaches: creating sacred space, temporary in many ways, permanent in others. On so many levels, that is what camp is about: creating a holy place where campers and staff members, North Americans and Israelis, can encounter holy time, holy place, holiness of the soul and The Holy One. What are the ingredients of our sacred place? What are the core values of our summer sacred place? What are the essential questions and enduring understandings we hope people will explore and discover in our place? And how will we emerge transformed personally and professionally, socially and soulfully, intellectually and spiritually, behaviorally and thoughtfully from this place this summer?

Sitting through the details of parashat Terumah this Shabbat, I encourage all of us to listen to the blueprints of The Tabernacle and consider the essential ingredients of our sacred places and how we go about constructing those places, the spaces where we encounter ourselves and God and where we think about and live Sacred and mundane time. I look forward to your sharing your thoughts with me after Shabbat as I will share them with you in the weeks to come.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

Tashbar Torat Hayim Preschool said...

The Jewish soul is indeed a Mishkan Me'at. but so too are the Jewish homes we create. Each of the kelim in the mishkan are symbolic of utilizing the physical for spiritual purposes. My daughter's Bat Mitzvah parsha was Teruma. We found it rich in depth, with so much to learn from!
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