Still We Build

Still We Build February 13, 2024

Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

By Idit Klein, President of Keshet, a campus partner of Hebrew College

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃
They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

I could only read this week’s parashah, Terumah, and this verse in particular, through the lens of my trip to Israel last month. Together with 11 other women in leadership in the Boston Jewish community, we met with our counterparts in Israel — feminist leaders of women’s rights and shared society organizations: Jews, Bedouins, and Palestinians.

Terumah is dominated by extraordinarily detailed instructions for how to build the Mishkan, a structure for the Divine. In Exodus Chapter 25, God commands Moshe:

And these are the gifts that you shall accept…gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

…Make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold—overlay it inside and out—and make upon it a gold molding.

…You shall make a lampstand of pure gold…On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals.

What exquisite detail! What a vivid vision of exactly how to build and what should be the ultimate outcome.

I imagine the severe and uncompromising wilderness in which the people were called upon to conceive of what must have been beyond both experience and imagination: a structure with lamps of “cups shaped like almond-blossoms,” “blue, purple, and crimson yarns…dolphin skins, and acacia wood.” I imagine the Israelites wondering: how could such beauty — such holiness — survive here? And even blossom?

The building of the Mishkan was not a universal mandate. The people were asked first to recognize in themselves whether their hearts moved them to undertake this holy work.

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי׃
Speak to the Children of Israel and have them bring Me an offering. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is moved. (Exodus 25:2)

It was an invitation to those who felt inspired. First came the heart’s response to the ask; then came engaging in the other-worldly endeavor.

We see in the painstaking description of materials and process that even in the midst of harsh circumstances, the details matter. Perhaps in bitter and bleak conditions, moving step by step is the only way to find our way out. And perhaps the endless spool of instructions provides respite from the unrelenting, cruel climate.

Today, we find ourselves lost, once again, in the wilderness. The many decades of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians have driven us into deeper heartbreak and despair than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. For some, that means we do not know which way to go to find our own and our shared humanity. In the absence of a text that offers detailed instructions, we struggle to identify how we could ever find our way to a place where God dwells among us.

And yet without question: this is a moment of desperate need for a collective Mishkan — a space that brings the Divine into our midst — to ensure that humanity thrives with us. This is also a moment to reckon with the instruction in Terumah that we must build and beautify “inside and out.” We cannot build a Mishkan for our world that is beautiful and resonant only for us; it must align also with the values, commitments, and understanding of beauty of those beyond our immediate communities.

This enormous endeavor requires multiple voices and open hearts.

In our time in Israel, my colleagues and I met with many leaders who are broken-hearted yet somehow, also, open-hearted as they invite others into the work. Despite their despair, they are clear that, as the Torah suggests, we must find those “whose heart prompts them to give” their own crimson yarn and fine linen, lapis lazuli, and oil for lighting. Those who can embark upon the painstaking — and painful — work of (re)building.

We heard from Lee Hoffman Agiv of Bonot Alternativa: “No one is unharmed; everyone can be part of the solution.”

The Bedouin and Jewish women of the Rahat Jewish-Arab Joint Relief Center are looking for people who know in their hearts their desire to give: “We’ve put out a call for people who still believe in hope.” And they offered their own prescription for how to build: “The only answer to the trauma of witnessing crimes against humanity is seeing an abundance of humanity.”

In the face of staggering loss for both Israelis and Palestinians, it seems miraculous that anyone finds it in their hearts to embark upon the building of the Mishkan we need today, the Mishkan of peace across borders and a shared society where all can live in safety and dignity. But as Sally Abed of Standing Together told us: “From the deepest crises come the clearest visions.”

The women we encountered shared with us profound gifts as they revealed how we might offer our own, and even perhaps how we might move forward. Peta Jones Pelach of Women Wage Peace reminded us that in our liturgy, we pray for peace all the time. “If it is good enough to pray for, it must be good enough to work for.”

May we all find the strength in our hearts and hands to build and beautify the future that we struggle to imagine.

Idit Klein is President and CEO of Keshet, which she built from a local start-up in Boston to a national organization that works for LGBTQ+ equality in Jewish life and beyond. An Israeli-American, Idit began her career working in Jerusalem in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and continues to be animated by hope for a better future for both peoples. She lives in Boston with her family.

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