Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons
פרשת תרומה, תש״פ
Parshat T'rumah, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, February 29th, 2020
Agudath Achim as God’s Ideal Home - Part 2
You don’t have to pay to pray. But, if you want heat in the building on Hanukkah and air-conditioning on Yom Kippur, there is a cost. If you want a prayer book, there is a cost. If you want a rabbi and a cantor to be there for you, there is a cost. If you want teachers for your children, there is a cost. For 362 days of the year, our doors are wide open for anyone who wants to pray - without cost. For a synagogue to provide these services, there is a cost...and it is our membership who generously offer gifts from their heart - we call them “dues” - to support this effort.
- Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California
Over the past few months, life at our synagogue has been exciting and a bit noisy. Ceiling tiles have been removed and replaced, light bulbs have been changed, plumbing has been reconfigured, and thermostats have been updated. We are replacing our fire safety equipment and investigating what it would cost to replace our ancient electric kitchen appliances with a gas-powered oven and stove top. We are even researching how to set up streaming capabilities for our Shabbat services and how to send mass text messages in case of emergency. We spend a lot of time on this bimah and in our newsletters asking you to give just a little, and sometimes, it may seem counterintuitive to our religious imperative of creating welcoming space.
And yet...before the Torah even begins to talk about communal worship of God, the Torah asks for terumah, for donations to build a portable home for God in the wilderness. ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי. And y’all shall take for me a donation. From each person whose heart moves him, y’all shall take my donation. (Exodus 25:2). Even God needs donations in order for the people of Israel to build that initial Tabernacle, that initial template for the house of worship we inhabit today. ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, God says. And make for me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). God’s presence among the people Israel requires a physical space, and that physical space requires monetary resources for its construction.
Of course, as God is present everywhere, the question arises of why God needs such a physical space. I love the answers of the Israeli professor Moshe Cassuto - The Tabernacle, the mishkan, is not constructed for the sake of God, but really, for the sake of the people Israel, as a symbol to remind the people of God’s constant Presence, even after they leave Mount Sinai. The mishkan is constructed in all its glory to remind the people of Israel of God’s glory. It is constructed with earthly wonders to help the human Israelites associate God’s Presence with pleasure and comfort. Today, our synagogue space, our modern mishkan acts as that symbol. This building, expensive as it is to maintain, is our symbolic reminder not just that God is here but that God is present and active throughout our lives, wherever we are.
Just as the mishkan is constructed with Divine glory and human comfort in mind, so too, our synagogue must be kept in a state that reminds us of how fortunate we are to enjoy God’s constant presence in our lives. Just as our mishkan was made of the finest materials, we should not be afraid or feel guilty about beautifying this space and adding a little extra comfort. We should not feel guilty about spending some money on new prayer books or buying new appliances or washing the building or purchasing fine wine and delicacies for the sake of enhancing our Shabbat and holiday celebrations. This space and everything that goes on in it should make us feel at every moment the real joy of experiencing a life created by the Divine.
And of course, we must remember to say thank you more than we think we should to those individuals who put in the extra effort of maintaining this space. Thank you to those who cook and clean, to those who install and repair, to those who bring in books and food and artwork as offerings of love for God and community, and to those who plan events and learning opportunities to entice us to stay in this sacred space for even more time each week. And yes, thank you to those who donate in memory, in honor, and in celebration of the people and religious tradition you love. Ideally, the more we have positive experiences here, the more we remember our connection to God when we venture outside of these walls.
Just about a year ago, I visited this space for the very first time, and I was smitten with your dedication to keeping it alive. It was clear that you knew that supporting this congregation symbolizes supporting thousands of years of Jewish tradition and belief in the Jewish ideal of God. When I first visited, I delivered a d’var Torah entitled, “Agudath Achim as God’s Ideal Home,” and I have learned since then how apt my title was. You meet up at the synagogue to collect your thoughts and to say hello before going shopping or to lunch with friends. You stop by the synagogue to share sad news or to introduce your family to the community. This space is not just a building, but truly, a home. Let us remember the importance of maintaining and beautifying our home, even if we have to use some valuable resources in the process. In the same words I used to nervously end my first d’var Torah to y’all last year: “We make this synagogue more and more our home so that we can take its inspirations with us towards being moved by our hearts to give and say thanks wherever we are, at every possible moment in time.” Shabbat Shalom.