Tag Archives: Building Tabernacle

It’s About Values, Not Buildings

The Israelites are commanded to bring all sorts of materials – gifts of their hearts – to build the Tabernacle. They bring gold, silver, and linens, even animal skins. Our rabbis clarify that, just in case you were concerned where they were getting these materials from, there was plenty of wealth from what they took with them when they left Egypt. And Shemot Rabbah even explains that for the righteous, when manna fell from the heavens, it also rained down precious stones, gems, and rubies for them.

But what is most challenging to make sense of is not the precious stones or gold or silver. It’s not even the crimson yarn, or the tachash, the skin of a dolphin – or even a mystical creature that no longer exists as one Talmudic section suggests. What doesn’t make sense to me is all the acacia wood, the atzei Shittim, that was needed to build the Mishkan.

Most suggest that acacia wood is native to Australia and southeast Asia. So how did the Israelites get their hands on it? Truthfully, how did they get their hands on any wood in the midbar, in the desert? They were not wandering through the rain forest. They were in the desert, without the shade that trees create. So where did all this wood come from?

Breishit Rabbah says that when Jacob was on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision that the Israelites would need acacia wood to build the Tabernacle. He stopped in Beer Sheva, to pick up plants that Abraham had planted long ago and brought them with him to Egypt to replant them, so the Israelites could take the acacia wood with them when they left Egypt.

I think we are overthinking this though, because we will never be able to explain all the wood the Israelites had in the wilderness. Maybe Atzei Shittim isn’t a special type of wood at all. Midrash suggests that the Hebrew word Shitim, is actually an acronym. The Hebrew letters of this word, Shin, Tet, Yud, and Mem, represent Shalom (peace), Tova (goodness), Yeshua (redemption), and Mechila (forgiveness). It is not that we needed to build the Tabernacle with these specific materials, but instead we needed to build it with these values: peace, goodness, redemption, and forgiveness.

StaindedGlassCeilingI often think about the magnificent spaces that we pray in, that we make our houses of worship. How lucky we are to take these holy spaces and create holy community within them. But we must be reminded that holy community can exist no matter the space we are in. And just because we are in holy space, that does not mean we create holy community. Midrash is suggesting that for God to reside in any space, within the Tabernacle or our own sanctuaries, our communities need to be built on our values and ideals. Cavernous gorgeous spaces will remain empty, no matter how packed the pews are, if they are devoid of the values that we hold dear. May we also never forget that ultimately, it is our values that guide us, not our buildings.

No matter the infrastructural challenges that any building faces, challenges with heating or cooling, or even a leaky roof, the building does not make holy community. We make holy community. The book of Exodus ends with God filling up the space of the Tabernacle. God didn’t do this because the building was finally complete. Rather, God did so because the community was finally living up to the values it was supposed to. A building must be based on how we treat each other, and what we stand for. May our builds always be rooted in the values we stand for – and that is what matters most about them.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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There is Nothing Sacred about Guns

V’Asu Li Mikdash, V’Shachanti B’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

Parashat Terumah focuses on the Israelites giving a variety of gifts so that they may build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. But God explains that doing so allows God to dwell among them. We build buildings, but God does not reside in these buildings. Sometimes we need to build buildings to help us see the divine spark within ourselves and our communities. This reminds us that God resides within People, not a single place. That means it is within the power of the people then to act on God’s behalf. God dwells among us.

17 students and faculty were murdered on Wednesday, victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Children who are scared to go to school. Teachers are wearing Kevlar vests at work. Parents worry that every goodbye each morning may be their last. Many demographics are impacted and effected by gun violence. And there is much demand about what laws should be passed. But can we at least talk about children? Children are the most vulnerable in our society. This may not be the case with other species; birds leave the nest once they can fly. Other mammals learn to hunt for themselves as soon as they are able to walk. But about human beings, our children remain dependent on parents, caregivers, teachers, and community. Children are not expected to take care of themselves, defend themselves, and protect themselves. That is on us. That is our job.

Just as Parashat Terumah focuses on the building of the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, the Haftarah reading for this Torah portion, taken from I Kings focuses on Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of instructions and dimensions of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the Haftarah clearly states:

When the House was Built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). 

The rabbis introduce the concept of a shamir, a worm that was able to eat away at stone. Since iron tools weren’t permitted in shaping these stones, rabbinic literature explains that Solomon used this worm to eat at the edges of these stones to make them smooth and not jagged. Mishnah Avot suggests that such a creature was so miraculous that it must’ve been created by God immediately prior to Shabbat during the week of creation.

The Talmud clarifies that the reason King Solomon used such a worm, instead of hammers and axes, was because the Temple was a place that promoted peace – a place that celebrated God’s presence – and thus, one shouldn’t use tools that promoted bloodshed, war, and violence. Because you cannot claim something is holy if it promotes violence. You cannot cling to objects and argue that they are holy when these objects that cause harm are antithetical to the teachings of our faith. But this is where we are at as a society. I thought things would change almost twenty years ago with the Columbine shooting. We all thought things would change five year ago following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Because our society clings to their guns.

While we read of instructions to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, it is only chapters later that the Israelites build the golden calf, read in Parashat Ki Tissa. How is it possible that only chapters after God instructs the Israelites to build a sacred space, they abandon God by worshipping idols.? After being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, they were only accustomed to worshipping idols and it was difficult to change. It is a reminder to all of us how difficult it is, despite the verses of scripture that we may espouse, to rid ourselves of the idols among us that we worship.

We are stuck in this vicious cycle of gun violence because we live in a country that worships guns. The religion of guns is controlled by gun manufacturers, whose goal is not to protect lives, but instead to sell more guns. Rather than being guided by ethics and values of scripture taught by clergy, the religion of guns is guided by the NRA and lobbyists who fatten the pockets of elected officials, ensuring inaction continues, and this epidemic of gun violence continues as well. And those who practice the religion of guns, Avodah Zarah, Idol Worship, also forget the essence of what our faith teaches us, that something that promotes war and violence cannot be sacred.

The Haftarah clarifies that which causes harm to others cannot be sign as sacred. And as the Torah portion teaches, sacred space is not about buildings, it is about people. It’s about community. It is not about armed guards or metal detactors in our schools either. It is about changing society, and doing all that is possible to prevent harmful tools from ending up in the hands of those who will use them to cause harm. And I don’t understand the argument of “It’s not about guns. It’s about people.” To me it’s about making it harder for people who will use objects to cause harm to gain access to them. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Carly Novell, 17, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there. You don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns,” she said. “And this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.” 

V’Shachanti B’tocham. And I will dwell among them. God is found among the people. So it is up to the people. It is up to us, God’s partners in creation, to end our society’s obsession with worshipping idols, to change a society where the right to own a gun is more important than the right to live. It is up to us, to do better, to be better. God expects that of us. And so does our children.

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