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March 3, 2017

03/03/2017 11:29:30 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.  I’m really tired.  Tired of cemetery desecrations, and bomb threats—attacks on our own community.  Tired of mosques being burned.  Tired of people being killed because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity.  Tired of having to focus on security instead being able to focus on program.  I’m quite simply exhausted.

I was speaking with a colleague yesterday—one of the colleagues with whom I am studying in the Executive Masters program through Hebrew Union College, to get a Masters in Religious Education.  This was the program with which I traveled to Israel recently, as part of our studies.  My friend reminded me of our trip to a community near the Gaza border, Moshav ntiv haaserah, at which a woman who lives there told us about her experience living there, particularly during the summer of 2014, in which rockets were fired into their community from Gaza daily, thousands in all.  Because of the Iron Dome, very few caused any real, physical damage.  However, as she showed us one of the rockets that fallen into her backyard, she said words that stayed with me, “This is a psychological weapon.”

And, indeed, while I understood what she meant then—I get it in a much deeper way now.  There are weapons that are meant to do physical damage—and those are awful.  But there are other weapons that are designed to hurt psychologically.  To bring fear, to make us wonder, to attempt to destroy the spirit—those weapons, I believe, are just as awful.

An hour later, we saw something else at that same Moshav—we saw the huge, enforced cement blockers which mark the border between Gaza and Israel.  We heard the sound of gun shots, from the Israeli Army practicing.  We saw exactly how close we were.  And on those giant barriers, we saw something else.  We saw what fueled the woman with whom we spoke, what fueled the community we were visiting, and indeed what fuels the world—we saw hope.  We saw hope in the form of a project called N’Tiv L’Shalom, the Path to Peace, a mosaic project on the border wall, created by individual contributions of on-site visitors, “in the hope that one day our collective desire for a life of tranquility and peace will be fulfilled.”  The mosaics are full of bright colors, rainbows and flowers, houses, trees and smiling faces.  And the name of the place, with its hope and perhaps its internal prayer, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  And, perhaps, it is only this sense of hope, this sense of working towards peace in small ways, that is the counter weapon against psychological warfare.

That same day, while we were still at the Moshav, we heard about a terror attack in Jerusalem—a truck ramming into pedestrians at a bus stop. Later, as we visited S’derot, a city devastated by rocket fire, we all wrote home or posted on social media that we were safe—we were safely in S’derot and near the Gaza border.  It was a surreal moment.  And it was only 2 days later, sitting in a cafe, enjoying dinner with my cohort of educators from across the country, that the first Bomb Threat was called into the JCC here.  I happened to be sitting next to an educator in Kansas City, who well remembers the shooting at the JCC there just 2 years ago.  She understood. She also understood that my concern didn’t subside when I learned that there was no bomb—little did either of us know that this would be only the first round of bomb threats put upon the Jewish community.  A month or so of psychological terror attempted.

And, I’m tired.  I’m really tired.  But I’m also comforted, knowing that the community is around us.  Knowing that the students at the Religious School at the Islamic Center of Delaware each made cards last weekend, to be sent to each of the synagogues here in Delaware as statements of support.  And knowing that the Interfaith Service that was put together primarily by the African American community this past Wednesday gathered together Jews with Christians and Muslims to stand together in solidarity and comfort.  Standing hand in hand with so many, singing We Shall Overcome—as tears came to my eyes—I believed it.  And I had hope.  And I knew that it was through hope that we shall, indeed, continue to thrive, as our people have done for millenia.

And I also know that our tradition gives us a guide of how to persevere.  This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is at the heart of this guidance—giving us a moment at which where we are in the Torah is perfect for what is going on in the Torah.  In this portion, Moses is given instructions to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary to carry through the wilderness, in order to bring God’s presence throughout the desert and into the promised land.  

God commands, “Asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.”

“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” 

Within this verse is the recognition that humanity needs things which are holy—we need sacred space, and here is the original creation of such a thing.  Previous to this, there had been instances of places being recognized as holy—but this is the first time that something is made by human hands (although by Divine instruction in this case) for the sole purpose of being sacred.  Two terms in Hebrew are used to designate the Tabernacle: mikdash and mishkan.  Literally, a place of holiness and a place of dwelling.  Indeed, both descriptions are apt in describing a holy space such as this.  By way of recognizing that a space is holy, we allow God’s presence to be in that space. 

Whatever our personal conception of the meaning of “God’s presence,” that presence is invited in when we treat a space as holy, as sacred—as valuable in a way that no other possession can be valuable.  Sanctity is a matter of human declaration.  Through our actions and through our words does a space become holy.  We intuitively know how to treat such spaces in order to designate them as holy, and how to treat them once we understand that they are holy.  In modernity, we continue to create such spaces.  We are within one right now.  We created them and see them created in so many different places.  And it is these places that give us a sanctuary—not only as a holy place, but as a hopeful place—a place away from those aspects of the world which try to take hope away from us.  This is our sanctuary.  Not just the room we are in, but the community we are with.  

Because physicality isn’t always important—it’s what lies within which really matters.  Honi the Circle Maker, a character from rabbinic literature, is named so because he drew circles on the ground, and stood within them to pray.  The most simple way of creating a sacred spot…not building anything, but drawing shapes in the sand.  Standing within the circle, he was able to pray most honestly to God.  His prayers were answered.  If a circle of ground can be holy, then certainly any space can be holy as well.  If we treat a place as sacred, then it is.

And when we are a k’hillah k’dosha—a holy community—we are able to bring that sanctity to every space where we dwell.  

Wherever we are, it is when we recognize that within each of us is the Divine Spark, and treat each other as if God is a presence within the relationship, and within the community, this is truly a sacred space. 

This synagogue—our synagogue—is a sacred space.  Each time we treat this place as sacred, we engage in the constant process of creating this modern Tabernacle.  This place was built in order that God may dwell here.  We need to recognize that inherent sanctity, as we continually work towards building it.  And through that, we find the hope we need.

But we do not finish there.  Abraham Joshua Heshel taught that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time.  If we recognize that our tradition offers not only holiness in physical spaces, but also sanctity in moments, then we can recognize that our lives are full of opportunities for sanctuary—for refuge, for comfort, and for hope.

As we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, may those words move us beyond the realm of greeting to the realm of hope.  May Shabbat bring us a sense of Shalom, of peace and of wholeness, for each of us, for all of use, and for the world.  May this Shabbat offer a sanctuary to us all.  May this Shabbat bring us the rest that we seek.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779