Begin with a heart of gold

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a board-certified chaplain providing Jewish Care Coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, “Renewal-in-Action,” specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.  

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

As we begin this week’s portion, Terumah, the ancient Israelites have moved beyond the Ten Commandments and received a long list of qualifying do’s and don’ts in last week’s portion, Mishpatim.  They are finally given a break from all the listening and are told: “Take for Me something precious and build something lasting that I might dwell in you.”  

The portion then proceeds to detail the architecture of a sanctuary that the Israelites will carry with them as evidence of their belonging to God.  

I like the idea of belonging. I love being Jewish. I belong. My identity as a Jew can be defined, according to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (z”l) by the three B’s:  believing, behaving and belonging.  When speaking to colleagues, students and people interested in what the tradition teaches, I’ve used Rabbi Kaplan’s concept to describe the broad continuum Judaism embraces.

In Terumah this year, I see a Jewish foundation framed by people who had no clear identity, few expressed beliefs and a history of recalcitrant behaviors.  In 400 verses of text spanning several weeks, the Israelites are told to create something worthy of the Divine.  The Mishkan (sanctuary) the people are instructed to build will become a meeting place, a peopled place for refining beliefs and behaviors. 

It is this word “belonging” that is the heart of the portion this week.  The text speaks: “Take for Me from each person whose heart is inspired … to make for Me, a holy space.”  

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The first object created was the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark), crafted out of pure gold, a symbol of its refinement. It was placed in the heart of the sanctuary so that the Divine Presence might be drawn into an encounter with a human emissary. 

The Mishkan has been called God’s home on Earth, but Rashi (11th century) clarifies this idea. The home God is seeking is not a sacred object, but a space infused with holiness potential so that a bit of the Beyond Knowing is drawn into our material existence to elevate us.  The word terumah is generally translated as offering or gift, but its literal meaning is to raise up.

What the biblical Israelites elevated was a burgeoning desire for carving out a corner of life where we could be transparently visible to the Divine.  The word “belonging” can be separated into two words: be and longing. The psalmists, prophets, mystics and many rabbinic traditions explored the nature of this longing and attributed its sentiment to both God and humans.  There is reciprocity in the relationship, yearning on both sides of the great divide.  

In the Book of Isaiah, God calls to Israel, “Where were you when I came looking?  Why was there no answer when I called?”  

An equally poignant human request is found in the opening Ana B’Koach, a mystical, supplication prayer offered Friday nights in many congregations.  It beseeches God, the Divine Untangler, to untie our knots and release our song that we may use the Sabbath as a source of weekly renewal.  

What is longed for is a space for encountering and growing into what the Jewish people were told to be: a refined and holy people.  There is a Hasidic tradition that hears the word Mishkan as a symbol for the sanctuary within each human heart.  Each of us becomes a living legacy of the Mishkan experiments through Jewish time.  The Holy of Holies we craft in our own lives is drawn from our joy, our grief, our hope, our shame, our wonder, our truth, our stories, our despair, our love, our shadows, our light and our gratitude for belonging on a sacred, ever unfolding path.   

The building of the portable sanctuary began with a heart of gold.  We craft one by elevating our finest thoughts, feelings and intentions.  It is within this holy space that we can shine with the Divine and bring greater light to all creation.