A few weeks ago, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple clergy and the heads of our administrative departments embarked on the annual “Senior Staff” retreat. During this time, we brainstorm and dream big about the goals of the Temple and its members for the next year and beyond. While driving to Camp Ramah this year, I recalled that the last time we came together for this retreat was February 2020. I brought my then 3-month-old son, Joey, to meet my temple family, and I took a much-needed mental break from maternity leave. As we sat around the conference room, dreaming about what 2020 had in store, none of us could have predicted what was to come.
Little did we know that a few weeks later the entire world, as we knew it, would change -- that our beautiful temple buildings would be closed, our children would be in an online school, and our temple community would be physically separated for so long. Three years later, our 2023 retreat focused on how to rebuild and revitalize our growing community after a global pandemic.
Luckily for us, our ancestors knew just a little bit about building sacred spaces.
This week’s parashah, Terumah, teaches us the importance and purpose of building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle/sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert, as well as the many detailed instructions on how to build it.
The parashah opens with; “God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.”(Ex. 25:1-2).
As much as these gifts are supposed to come from the heart, it is not just the thought that counts. God has a plan, and is very specific about what is required:
“These are the gifts that you shall accept,” God says. “Gold, and silver, and copper; blue, and purple, and crimson yarns; fine linen, and goat’s hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia-wood, [along with oil, and spices, and incense].”
I can just picture the conversation…
Israelite 1: Ok. Gold… check. Silver…. check. Copper… check. Dolphin Skins… ummmm, Moses, we’re in the desert, man. Where are we supposed to find a dolphin?
Israelite 2: Hey guys, I got it. My mom gave me this a while back, and I have just been carrying it around. Didn’t want to throw it away, but like really don’t have the storage space in my pack anymore… think you could use it?
All joking aside, this is exactly how Rabbi Irwin Keller pictures the Israelites in the desert. He imagines “these poor children of Israel, carrying with them not only obviously precious items, like Gold and Silver, but also odd and awkward items, which at the time they were hurriedly packed were of no particular use, but they packed them anyways. Hidden gifts schlepped through the wilderness. Or not quite gifts, but gifts in potentia. Bric-a-brac, awaiting the chance to become holy regalia.”
During our 2023 retreat, we were led by our keynote speaker, Rabbi Julia Appel, from Clal- the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In the spring of 2022, Clal joined the Springtide Research Institute to pilot a survey of belongingness in seven synagogues across the U.S. and Canada. If you recall from your emails, Wilshire Boulevard Temple was one of those seven synagogues.
While I won’t divulge all of the findings, there was one nugget in particular that was very much related to this week’s parashah from Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging:
“Communities are built from the assets and gifts of their citizens, not from the citizens’ needs or deficiencies. Organized, professional systems are capable of delivering services, but only associational life is capable of delivering care. Sustainable transformation is constructed in those places where citizens, not institutions or experts, choose to come together to produce a desired future”
The mishkan isn't a building, as beautiful as our many buildings are. The mishkan is you and me. It’s us -- the way we uplift and take care of each other, learn with each other, pray with each other, and do mitzvot with and for each other. True community is found in the gifts we are able and willing to offer -- with an open heart.
So what’s the one gift that you have not offered yet? The one no one knows you have. The one you might not even think of as a gift. The one that’s just been waiting. And ask yourself, ‘When will I offer it?’ When will you use it to help build our Mishkan?
The truth is… we can’t build this without you.
Cantor Lisa Peicott