31 January 2014

The Door Is Always Open

  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה:  מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.

"And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the Children of Israel that they should take for me an offering; of every person whose heart so moves him, you should take My offering."

So opens this week's Torah portion, in rather prospective but no less dramatic fashion.  After all, when God asks for a gift, you better bring it.  Adornments of the finest jewels, hewn metals, strong and sturdy woods, the finest fabrics, skins, spices, oils and incense:  each intentionally demanded, each playing an essential role in the construction of sacred space.

I work in a sacred space.  It occupies two corners of 8th Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn.  In 1909, when the first sacred space was completed, its central purpose was to provide a place of prayer for those seeking a connection to God through traditional Jewish worship.  Theologies and prayerbooks and ritual dress have changed and evolved over the century that the space has been used but the central idea remains the same--that inside the Main Sanctuary at 8th and Garfield, the principle purpose is spiritual access to God, to the Source of Life, through the mode of the recitation of words, spoken, sung and chanted, as an "offering to the Eternal."  This was the vision, as carried out, by the vast majority of the German Jewish leadership that was responsible for the community at that time.

Twenty years later, another sacred space was constructed.  Material manifestations of aspirational architecture and historical circumstances had changed; and so had the New York Jewish community that made its home in Park Slope.  The massive wave of Eastern European Jewry was beginning to truly make its mark on Jewish life and with it came some very decidedly secular ideas, imported from Eastern and Central Europe, smelted into the American milieu and transformed into what became known as the Synagogue Center Movement.  A gymnasium, a swimming pool, a social hall, a ballroom and classroom space for instruction of the masses who would need to be educated, Americanized, into this new paradigm of Jewish community which did not presume exclusively religious or spiritual orientation but presence in, a place in, community.

Community is a word that hovers, in a practically divine way, over this week's Torah portion.  After all, God requests these fine, precious objects for a clearly stated purpose:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם
And let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

One can't help but wonder about one Jewish community, evolving in time according to historical exigencies, adapting itself to an ever-evolving notion of what it means to build "sacred space."  For one generation that space is for prayer; for another that space is for education, athletics, social cohesion.

And what of our own?

Wednesday was a busy day.  I visited with children in our Early Childhood Center; brainstormed with professionals from across Brooklyn, sharing ideas for expanding our reach together, despite our unique differences, to create opportunities for connection to those not yet a part of the Jewish community; met with a Hebrew language consultant to talk about the evolving curricula for passing on an ancient language in contemporary times; studied Torah as memorial to a friend; taught a Basic Judaism class; said hello to the Wednesday night Bridge class:  all to the background of basketballs drumming on the gym floor, waves in the pool; and on and on.

Is God in such moments?  What is the right answer?  Always "yes?"  Sometimes "yes?"  Wherever one let's Her in?

In the midst of their own inquiries into the notion of God asking for a Sanctuary to be built so that God "may dwell among them," the Rabbis in the Midrash quote the verse from Song of Songs, "I sleep but my heart wakes."  What they mean, perhaps, in deploying this particular text is that each of is asleep, metaphorically, when on the outside looking in but a wakefulness occurs when we are drawn in to the sacred space of community.  The Rabbis write, "'The voice of my beloved knocks, open up for Me my sister."  How long shall I wander abroad homeless but "make Me a Sanctuary" that I should not remain outside."  (Exodus Rabbah)

Brilliant.  And I know it to be true.  It amazes me to no end when people claim that Jews don't want to be connected to Jewish life.  I know the opposite of that.  And their non-Jewish partners are right beside them.  The opportunity to create space--sacred and secular, meaningful and enduring--is the great privilege of Jewish service.

At times the voice knocks making sandwiches for the poor and at times the voice knocks in communal song, welcoming the Shabbat.  

And the door is always open.  And the many hearted community thrives as one.


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