Friday, February 16, 2018

Building Holiness

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.

That’s how this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, begins. With a commandment from God, through Moses, for everyone whose heart is so moved to bring gifts. These gifts can be gold, silver, fine linen, animal skins, and a host of other precious objects. And why do we need to bring these gifts? “v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

It’s possible that, more than any other single verse in the entire Torah, these words contain the ultimate, true essence of what Judaism is about. Of what we’re trying to do by leading Jewish lives. The ultimate commandment, our ultimate responsibility, is to take from the best of what we have, bring it all together as a community, and together try to create something. Try to create something holy, and in doing so, allow the presence of God to dwell among us. And, of course, were not just talking about physical buildings here — anything that we “build,” anything we create can, if built properly, make it easier for us to experience the presence of God. It’s pointed out by sages and teachers throughout the generations (including by myself, quite often) that the Torah doesn’t tell to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell in it. We are told to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell among us. Possibly even within us. It isn’t that God needs a house. It’s that, by trying to build something for God, we evoke, find, or possibly even make possible God’s presence in the world, and in our lives.

It’s always been a bit of a contradiction in Judaism. On one hand, God is everywhere – that’s the first thing most of us learn about God. There is no place without God’s presence. On the other hand, we build special, sacred places. We build sanctuaries in the desert, Temples in Jerusalem, and synagogues all over the world. Usually, we understand those holy places to be for us, not for God. God doesn’t need a special building — after all, God really is everywhere. But we are limited, imperfect human beings, and it’s much easier for us to think about God, to see God, to feel God, maybe even to believe in God, in some places, rather than others.

Some sages, however, are willing to go at least a half-step further. Some say that when a place is unholy, when a place is broken, when a place is vile, it’s as if God can’t, or won’t, be there. It’s as if there is actually a place where God isn’t. Or, maybe it’s not “as if.” Maybe God really won’t go to those places. In the end, I’m not so interested in the metaphysics – in the underlying, objective reality here. At the end of the day, from our point of view, God not being somewhere, and our complete inability to see God in a place, are pretty much the exact same thing. If a tree falls in the forest, and all that. And so, we’re commanded to build something holy, and in doing so, to try to bring God’s presence into our world, and into our lives.

I’ve been thinking about these verses, and this teaching, and this idea of building holiness, especially since Wednesday afternoon. As I’m sure everyone here knows, on Wednesday, 17 people were killed in yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were murdered in just a few moments. They were: Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang. One person, whose name I will not utter, whose heart was filled with some toxic mix of anger, and hatred, and evil, and sickness, murdered them, destroyed the lives of their families, friends, and loved ones, and God only knows what he did to the survivors — they’ll be living with this for the rest of their lives, God help them.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, but with a new force and clarity, and a new import, that one of the fundamental, inescapable differences between creating something holy, and destroying something holy, is that the latter is so, so much easier. It is frighteningly easy to destroy. It is so terribly difficult to create. And it is especially difficult to create something holy. If you like pithy formulations, you can find one in Schopenhauer’s Law of Entropy: if you put a spoonful of wine into a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage into a barrel full of wine, you get sewage. A little bit of awful, a little bit of evil, can destroy so much good.

It doesn’t matter what level of society, what granularity we’re looking at, the maxim holds true. It’s true with people in our lives — it’s easier to tear them down than to build them up. It’s easier with institutions — one troublemaker or kvetcher can undermine a place so effectively that a whole team of well-meaning, positive people can barely keep up. It’s true in politics — it’s easier to ruin people’s lives than to help them. It’s easier to point out the problems with someone else’s proposed ideas then to create a better plan yourself. And, It’s easier to kill 17 people then it is to stop one sick, awful man getting a gun and going to his old school.

It’s a bit of an aside, but there is a debate about Creation, at least as told in our Torah. The majority of commentators hold that God created the world out of nothing. But, there are a few who contend that God actually had some raw material to work with — that there was some primordial chaos which served as the raw materials of Creation. I actually lean more towards the “Creation out of chaos” view. In part because it’s actually truer to the text, I’d say. But, more importantly, it reflects an important teaching. Chaos is the natural state of everything. Chaos is the given. It took a Divine effort to hold back the chaos, to bring in some order. And, it’s not over — the chaos is always trying to creep back in. So, it takes an ongoing Divine effort, or at least a divine-sized effort, to keep it at bay. Sometimes, it seems, nothing can.

But, that’s exactly why we’re needed. That’s why God needs us. Again, I don’t pretend to be able to really explain the metaphysical reality. I don’t know if God can’t continue to hold back the chaos, or God chose to let some chaos through for us to deal with, or maybe if God just got sick of being the only One fighting the fight. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just know that, a very long time ago, God came to us and said, “Please. Take what you’ve got. Take the best of what you’ve got. Take it from anyone who’s got it, and from anyone who’s heart so moves them to give it, and build something. Build something holy.”

It’s hard. It’s so damn hard. It’s hard to know what our gifts are, and where they can best be used. It’s hard to work together, to coordinate our gifts, to jostle over who gets to work on one part and all that. It’s really hard to work with people we may not like so much sometimes, and especially to recognize and appreciate their gifts. It’s hard to sustain the effort, especially when the walls of our building project seem to be crumbling against the chaos from the very moment we put them up. It’s hard, but it’s the only way. If the only way to build something of value. It’s the only way to build something holy. It’s the only way to make a place for God in our world, or in our lives.

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vyikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Cain yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

This is a version of the sermon I gave on February 16th, 2018