Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – T’rumah
After ordination, we moved to Florence, SC, to begin my tenure serving Beth Israel Congregation. I could not have asked for a warmer congregation to grow my rabbinate. I was the only Rabbi for somewhere between 60 to 100 miles in any direction from Florence.
As Jewish families in these outlying areas needed a Rabbi, they called me. Some were members and drove. In other cases, the family calling me had a Jewish parent or grandparent in a religious home practicing a different tradition. Some of these communities were originally largely Jewish; families came to America as a community and then moved and settled as a community. Having been in many Southern cemeteries, I found it not uncommon to see many Jewish names on headstones going back to the founding of communities. Looking in phone directories, some communities had some of the same names in the listings, only they no longer represented Jewish homes. I cannot count the times that I came to bury the last Jews in a community.
What happened to the Jewish communities? On the one hand, we are and always have been nomads. We gravitate to communities with the opportunities, resources, and communities to support our growth. Our children wanted more in life than to come back to the small rural town where they grew up. We raised them to go out and engage the world. They came back engaged to someone or some opportunity out there, long enough to get our blessings. As the Jewish populations shrank through attrition, maintaining a separate community became more challenging and less relevant.
On the one hand, the Talmud teaches us that one of the most prescient obligations of Judaism is to be meaningful in one’s community. Few Jews converted, but they raised families where others were raising theirs. On the other hand, while I absolutely believe in the commonality of faith, I cannot help but feel the pangs of loss, walking through these communities knowing that I am the only active Jew that has been there in a generation.
So, it happened that the first time I read this week’s Torah portion as an ordained Rabbi now serving in a Jewish capacity in the South. I thought about God’s command to build a house where God might dwell there with the people. This house (Mishkan) had to be portable. The people needed to readily assemble and disassemble it as they moved and resettled, traversing the wilderness. Wherever we went, we knew that we would not be there long.
Our tenure in any one place throughout history is relatively short-lived. Indeed, one can trace many of our migrations to escape pogroms or worse. Whether we were escaping threats or pursuing new opportunities, our nomadic life story begins with the Exodus and remains our story today. That said, wherever we journey, we leave communities with our names’ legacies, community-building works, trials, and stories. As we traveled the wilderness, the ark of the covenant – the symbol of God’s presence – rested at each stop. We call the place where it rested the “Holy of Holies:” hallowed and consecrated ground.
Early on, I realized that in each of the communities I visited, the Jewish community had placed its “Holy of Holies:” dedicated spaces of worship and celebration. In the same sense that we teach one should not remove a mezuzah from the house when moving, every place we have lived remains dedicated in faith, long after our days there have ended. I grew to realize that this sense of holiness existed in religious communities all over the faith spectrum. Holiness is not tied to the label the community wore. One finds holiness where a community dedicated and sanctified space to honor the sacred relationships we share with God. After all, it is not like God has but one dwelling place.
“Build me a home that I might dwell amongst you.” Late in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah defines the word “You.” All of you. All who stood at Sinai and all who did not stand at Sinai. In every place where we have created space for God, we experience Divinity. I guess the only places where God cannot live are where we refuse to welcome and want God’s presence. Our God is present in synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, soup kitchens, mountains, homes, schools, and every place where people look beyond themselves for shared blessings. Your place or mine – let’s respect each other enough to remember that God exists in both places.