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Terumah 5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

02/20/2024 09:41:42 AM


The Place Where People Seek the Highest

A few weeks ago I attended the Shepherd Park Citizens’ Association potluck gathering. The event took place just up the road at the Washington Ethical Society and the room where we ate is the same meeting room where the Ethical Culture Society has their own gatherings. Over the stage, front and center, was the motto of the Ethical Culture Society: The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground. 

The phrase brought back childhood memories from New York where I attended school assemblies and performances in the grand auditorium of the Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West at 64th Street where this same motto was painted in front of the auditorium. I remember the original motto: The Place Where Men Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground;  at some point in the late 1980s the motto was updated to its present version. As befits a secular humanist meeting room, the phrase, attributed to Felix Adler himself, the descendant of generations of rabbis and the founder of Ethical Culture, is a secular and humanist reinterpretation of what makes a holy place. A holy place, according to Adler, is not a place that God has selected for a special purpose. A holy place, according to secular humanism, is not a piece of earth that armies might compete to possess. Instead, anywhere that human beings gather, in pursuit of the highest aims is, by this definition, a holy place.

Ironically, Adler's maxim is a pretty good translation of the Torah’s conception of holiness. 

                                                                                                                                                                                           וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ 

Make a holy-place for me and I will dwell in your midst.

This five word sentence is the culmination of  the opening call as Parshat Terumah begins to collect materials for the mishkan and then to use them to manufacture the keilim and walls for the mishkan. All of this activity is for a simple goal - to make a sacred place for God, so that God will dwell in our midst.

                                                                                                                                                                                           וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ 

Several questions are raised by a cursory glance at these words. Perhaps, most famously, we are told that if we make a mikdash for God, God will then dwell, not in the mikdash, but in “their midst”  וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם with the word בְּתוֹכָֽם referring back to the entirety of B’nai Yisrael who are involved in the project of donating for and constructing the mikdash.

The Hassidic Rebbe, Rav Shlomo HaKohen of Radomsk in his book Tifferet Shelomo explains that God’s presence rests among the Jewish people, rather than in the mikdash because the volunteerism of the entire people, who gave of their gold and silver and copper out of an internal spirit of generosity and commitment is what brings God’s presence down and gives it a space to dwell. The mikdash is not as significant as the internal spiritual achievement that led us to want to build it in the first place. 

                                                                                                                                             עיקר השראת השכינה שהי' על פנימיות נדבת לבם של כל או"א

 בדיבורו שהיו מקדישים נדבותם לצרכי המשכן היו ממשיכים אז בדיבורם הקדושה והי' השכינה שורה על פנימיות הלב של כל אחד ואחד בשעת דיבורו והקדשו. ומפני זה כתיב ושכנתי בתוכם ר"ל בתוך הפנימיות לבבם של המתנדבים. 

The essence, the ikkar,  of God’s presence coming to rest was from the internality of the generosity of the heart of each individual from B’nai Yisrael…For this reason it says “and I shall dwell in their midst” that is to say from inside their hearts as they make generous donations.

Rav Shlomo of Radomsk is known to have cared a great deal about sincerity. One story told about him concerns an occasion on which he refused a large donation from one of the wealthy business owners in Radomsk. When asked why he had rejected the donation, Rav Shlomo said, “if you had seen how happy he was when I handed the money back to him, you would not ask me why I didn’t accept it!”

In a very different context, Rabbi Joseph Solvoeitchik made a similar comment about the nature of holiness and how it is created: 

Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority…Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.

I had the tremendous privilege of being your emissary to Israel for five days this past week and, while my schedule was oriented around visits to as many Ohev Sholom community members as possible, I also visited two places which made me think about the sort of dedication and “historical deeds” that can endow a place with holiness.

This past Monday morning I toured Kibbutz Kfar Azza, an edenic paradise transformed into a hellish landscape of death and destruction as one of several ground-zero targets of the Shimini Atzeret Massacre. My guide, a young man who, following the murder of the kibbutz mayor, is now the main liaison between the kibbutz and the Israeli government, took me around the community where he was raised, and where he had been raising his own children, and pointed out home after home after home whose residents had been murdered or kidnapped, or who had survived by the merest hinge of fate - a safe-room door that somehow kept out smoke when a home was turned into an inferno, or a terrorist who turned right instead of left.  

And then we reached the alleyway of the young-people’s residences. These small, one bedroom attached apartments were home to students and young couples waiting to build homes on the kibbutz. How great it must have been to live, surrounded by lush natural beauty, among a group of peers and friends and comrades. This alley was the target of ferocious violence. Nearly everyone who lived there was murdered or kidnapped and several brave soldiers died in the fierce battle that took place there over the hours that followed the invasion. Zakah, the volunteer organization that retrieves human remains for burial after an accident or terror attack placed seals on the facades of buildings after they had scoured the interior and removed all human remains for burial. It took over a month for Zakah to complete their task in some of those apartments due to the brutality of the violence that took place there.

One of the young-people’s apartments was open for visitation. Sivan Alkabetz was murdered alongside Naor Hasidim.  High-school sweethearts, they were killed together at the age of 23. Anat Alkabetz, Sivan’s mother, has turned her daughter’s home into a memorial. Visitors can walk into the ransacked apartment covered in bullet holes, and see the kitchen cupboard still stocked with cans of food. In the months since her daughter’s murder, Anat has struggled to make sense of the world. Her daughter was murdered for being a Jew, Anat realized, “and I know nothing about what it means to be a Jew.” She has been studying to try to find out what it means to be a Jew. One of her teachers in Machshevet Yisrael, Jewish Thought, is Dr. Biti Ro’i, who had been one of my own teachers many years ago in yeshiva, and who hosted me in Jerusalem for several days last week. She asked me to light two memorial candles in Sivan and Naor’s home and I was honored to do so.

The kibbutz has turned into a site of mourning and a site of memory and a site of pilgrimage. I toured the kibbutz alongside groups of soldiers on training and alongside  international volunteers. When I left the kibbutz the line of cars to get into the gate stretched far down the road. There is a sort of holiness created by the mourning and grief that pervades the kibbutz and there is a sort of holiness that is created by the bravery and sacrifices that took place on the kibbutz. Ultimately, the members of the kibbutz will need to decide how to preserve the memory of what occurred there, in a way that enables them to return and rebuild. My guide said to me, “I don’t want my children running and playing through a sort of Majdanek.” The goal, in his words, was to live with the memory of what happened, but not allow the tragedy to overshadow the possibility of new life flourishing there.

The second site is in Tel Aviv in a location that I passed through with my children a few years ago without giving it any thought whatsoever. But over the past months, the large open space in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been transformed into “Hostages Square” or Kikar HaHatufim in Hebrew. The square is filled with sculptures and installation artwork intended to highlight the plight of the hostages in Gaza and to focus the world’s attention on the demand for their freedom. Some of the artistic activism, like a Shabbat table set with hundreds of seats, has been copied in cities around the world including here in Washington. 

Surrounding the sculptures, several kibbutzim have erected tents to share the stories of their neighbors held in captivity. The tents are staffed by kibbutz members or by others who grew up in the kibbutzim but are now living elsewhere. They take turns sitting in the tents, telling stories of the people they know and love who were killed or kidnapped. I sat in several of those tents and learned about beloved classmates and family friends held captive and of elderly parents now living as internal refugees. I met young children from the cities of central Israel telling the stories of the kibbutzim where their parents were born and where they celebrated holidays with their grandparents for year after year. 

Kibbutz Be’eri has set up a box for people to place notes of support for the members of the kibbutz. I sat down to write a note. I wrote that I served as the rabbi of a large congregation (admittedly, an exaggeration)  in the United States who loved them and offered their support and their tefilot for the return of the captive members of the kibbutz. As I folded the note and placed it through a slot in the top of the box, I was reminded of the notes that some people place between the stones of the kotel. Those notes are a way for people to express some of their most profound prayers and share them, in writing, with God. The letters that Kibbutz Be’eir collect are intended to be read by other human beings, but they too are expressions of some of our deepest yearning and most heartfelt prayers.

B’nai Akiva youth-group members formed a large circle in the center of the square and sang Hebrew prayers with somber melodies. As the night grew, a crowd of teenage activists from HaNo’ar HaOved, the Labor Party youth group gathered for a rally. I found a group of peace activists standing to the side from Nashot Osot Shalom, the organization founded by Vivian Silver, who some of you knew personally and who was murdered in her home on Shimini Atzeret morning. I told one of the activists how so many people I know admired Vivian and asked if she knew her. She replied that of course she did and of course she missed her friendship and her guidance and wisdom. “Vivian knew what to do,” she told me, “and could always figure out the most pragmatic way to respond to any challenge.” And we stood facing each other, both of us crying in the midst of a sea of humanity, Jews of all kinds, trying to seek their brothers and sisters, trying to influence their government, and our government, to prioritize the return of hostages, entreating God and reaching out to one another in grief and in solidarity. 

I did not make it to the kotel during this brief visit to Israel, but my time in Hostages Square reminded me of the kotel. The spot was not sanctified by proximity to the beit hamikdash, but it has been sanctified by the prayers and by the highest aspirations of those who have gathered there day after day after day, and who are prepared to keep gathering there until the last hostage comes home. 

We have new holy sites. And as long as people gather in the devastated communities in the south to mourn and to bear witness, and as long as people gather in Tel Aviv to pray and to yearn and to organize, then we should add those holy sites to our own pilgrimages as best as we are able. People are seeking noble purposes there and those places are endowed with holiness.

And of course, in our own mikdash me’at, the phrase that the Talmud uses to describe shuls -  a “miniature sanctuary” - as a shul this place is indeed dedicated to a sacred purpose and is endowed with a unique sanctity. Let’s also be sure to use the opportunity of being here together to seek the highest.

The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground. 

                                                                                                                                                                                           וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ 


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784