Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Human Capital Campaign (portion Terumah)


“Let them build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

At first glance, the opening of this week’s portion, Terumah, is Torah’s strongest argument on behalf of synagogue capital campaigns. God asks the Israelites to bring donations for the construction of the mishkan—the portable sanctuary that the people will carry with them through the desert.  What follows is the most successful fundraiser in Jewish history: the Israelites respond by bringing such an abundance of precious metal, gemstones, fine fabrics and other materials that God ultimately has to tell them, “Enough—stop giving!”  I’ve never heard of this “problem” reoccurring.

Yet I would argue that upon a closer reading, the parsha actually endorses a very different type of campaign.

This shift begins with asking the (somewhat) obvious question:  Why does God need a building in which to dwell?  Isn’t the Divine at least potentially everywhere, beyond space and time?  Why construct a “house” for the Source of Life?

That’s where the close reading comes in.  Our Sages note that the God does not say, “Build me a sanctuary, so that I am dwell in it (b’tocho).”  Instead, the text teaches that if the Israelites construct the space properly, God will dwell among them (b’tocham).  As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, “God’s presence is not found in a building.  It is found in the hearts and souls of the people who fashion and sanctify the building.”

There are scores of fantastic, vital synagogues that are thriving without a building of their own; there are also myriads of synagogues with spectacular buildings that are withering away.  What matters most is not the structure but the community that creates it.

We should take rightful pride in our historic synagogue building and our beautiful classrooms, kitchen and social hall.  But we must not forget that the beating heart of CABI is not a building; it is the people who occupy that building—and whose Jewish lives do not stop there.  We need to be living our Judaism in our homes and all over our city.  Toward the end of next month, for instance, we will be celebrating Shabbat downtown during Boise’s Treefort Music Festival.  This is an opportunity to meet people where they are and bring a Jewish component to their Treefort experience.  I hope that in the coming months and years, we will look to reach out beyond our CABI campus more frequently and more ambitiously.  The sanctuary in our portion is, after all, portable.  We can’t move our building through the desert (even though we did once!) but we can expand its reach by teaching, celebrating and living our Jewishness in all the places we inhabit.

Once we recognize that in this portion, the way you build matters much more than what you build, we might read it as a potent injunction to launch a human capital campaign.  If our greatest asset is our community, then we should focus on listening to one another, on empowering ourselves to do Jewish together.    When we encourage and inspire one another—well, that’s when the Divine truly dwells among us.

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