Wednesday, 29 Jan 2014

Written by Rene Pfertzel

As I am approaching the end of my rabbinical studies, my ordination taking place in less than 6 months, I am starting to ask myself questions about my future. These last years were overwhelmingly devoted to essential challenges, such as what do I need to learn to be a proper Rabbi, what kind of Rabbi do I want to be, where am I standing in the whole spectrum of Progressive Jewish life. I am not saying that all these questions have been answered. Far from it!

But now, in my middle-age, I have to start all over again: I have to find a new job, a task which is, thank God, almost done; I have to buy myself a place to live in, after five years without proper income; I have to decide where my home will be. I am not moaning, or at least no more than the Children of Israel in the wilderness, nor am I complaining: this has been the most exciting experience of my whole life so far, but beyond the dream, there is a reality which cannot be ignored.

All these thoughts came into my mind while I was reading Parashat Terumah. At first reading, our text seems odd. It is filled with details regarding the building of the portable tabernacle, a bit like an Ikea mounting instruction sheet, the ‘how to do’ the sanctuary properly. It seems a bit dull.

A closer look, though, shows that the spirit of Israel inhabits this place. As Jacob J. Weinstein once said: “our sages believed that the building of holy palaces, the exercise of piety, prepares the heart for godliness. People who build sanctuaries are more likely to feel the spirit of holiness, the mood of sanctity” (in: Jacob J. Weinstein, The Place of Understanding (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1959), p. 58).

Martin Buber tells this Chasidic story: “‘Where is the dwelling of God?’ This was the question with which Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk surprised a number of learned people who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: ‘what a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?’ Then he answered his own question: ‘God dwells wherever we let God in’” (in: Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim. The Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 277).

The Torah gives the reason why the Children of Israel have to build a sanctuary. God says: v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti betocham, ‘let them make me a sanctuary, so I may dwell among them’ (Ex. 25:8). Rashi adds: “and they shall make my name a house of sanctity”. In other words, says Rashi, the place itself is not enough to bear holiness. As our parashah’s name suggests, God tells Moses to ask each Israelite to bring a terumah, or ‘gift’, for the construction. Rashi understands this word as ‘separation’: “They shall set apart from their property an offering to Me”. The holiness of the place has its roots in the individuals’ intentions, or kavannah. As with Nachshon, at the edge of the sea when, chased by the Egyptians, the only choice left to the Israelites was between crossing the sea or dying there, we need to step in, to put our feet first, and engage with life.

In this context there is a verse in Genesis that needs to be mentioned: when Jacob woke up after his dream of the ladder, he exclaims: “achen, yesh Adonai ba-maqom ha-zeh, v’ani lo yad’ati, Surely, God was in this place, and I did not know” (Gen 28:16).

Rashi comments, based on the midrash: “for had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place”. Indeed, as Rashi pointed out so brilliantly, the first step is to be aware, to awake ourselves. We are surrounded by holiness, but we just don’t know it. It takes much effort to pull our heads out of our mundane worries, to envision the broader dimension of our lives.

Back to the worries I expressed earlier, it is fair to say that they are not so uncommon. I share them with all my fellow human beings. We all have to struggle with daily challenges, and they might sometime be very heavy to carry. Letting God in, as the Kotzker Rebbe teaches, helps; it opens up an awareness of the surrounding holiness for us. It gives a sense of belonging to the human race, and a sense of connection with the divine in us and around us. Maybe, we can find some support by letting God in, just because by doing this, we express our hope, our faith that the world is not merely a baffling, constantly challenging place.

Student Rabbi René Pfertzel

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.