Sunday, February 3, 2019

Terumah (House Where Nobody Lives)

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

What makes a house grand, oh, it ain't the roof or the doors
If there's love in a house, it's a palace for sure
But without love it ain't nothin' but a house
            (Tom Waits, “House Where Nobody Lives”)

In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, 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.  This raises an obvious theological problem: why does God need a building in which to dwell?  Isn’t the Holy One everywhere, beyond space and time?  Even today, many people experience God most intensely in the natural world.  So why construct a “house” for the Source of Life?

Most of the commentators answer with a close reading of our key verse, cited above.  They 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.”

In other words, the Holy One does not need a house—but when we work together in harmony, with a shared sense of purpose and dedication, we open ourselves to the Divine Presence.  The point of the whole enterprise is not to construct a magnificent structure for God (for whom not even the Himalayas or Grand Canyon suffice); the purpose is to sanctify our selves and invite God into our lives by creating community.  The sanctuary that we build is not nearly so important as the way that we build it.  If the labor promotes peace and compassion, it succeeds, even if the end product is very simple.  If, by contrast, the labor ferments division, jealousy, and anger, then it fails, no matter how magnificent and ornate its fruits may be.

It is no accident that the successor to our portion’s portable sanctuary—the Temple in Jerusalem—is known in Hebrew as the bayit—the House.  It is, of course, far larger and more elaborate than the mishkan, but the basic principal of its establishment remains.  As the Psalmist taught: If God does not build the House, its laborers toil in vain.  What makes a place holy is not the extravagance of the materials but the sacred intentions of its builders and occupants.  Indeed, the Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred and strife within the Jewish community.  The Divine is only present when the house is filled with love.

The iconoclastic, gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter Tom Waits reminds us of this truth in his song “House Where Nobody Lives.”  He begins with a description:

There’s a house on my block that’s abandoned and cold
The folks moved out of it a long time ago
And they took all their things and they never came back
It looks like it’s haunted with the windows all cracked
Everyone calls it the house
The house where nobody lives.

There was a time when it was different.  Once this house was a home:

Once it held laughter
Once it held dreams. 
Did they throw it away?
Did they know what it means?
Did someone’s heart break?
Or did someone do somebody wrong?

We don’t know exactly what happened, but love and community died—and thus a cherished place of shelter became the abandoned “house where nobody lives.”

Ultimately, Tom Waits reminds us—just as we learn in portion Terumah—that the good faith and spirit of the occupants matters far more than the quality of the building materials.  Only real human bonds of compassion and kindness transform a house into a home:

So if you find someone
Someone to have, someone to hold
Don’t trade it for silver,
Don’t trade it for gold.
‘Cause I have all of life’s treasures and they’re find and they’re good
They remind me that houses are just made of wood
What makes a house grand, oh, it ain’t the roof or the doors
If there’s love in a house, it’s a palace for sure.
But without love it ain’t nothing but a house
A house where nobody lives.

This message is profoundly counter-cultural in twenty-first century America, with its McMansions and persistent focus on the bottom line.  We dearly need to hear it.  By reminding us that God is found in the relationships of the builders rather than in the building itself, Torah—and Tom Waits—help us re-focus our priorities.  If we build our families, our congregation and our community with compassion and inclusivity, then—and only then—will God dwell among us.

To hear “House Where Nobody Lives” :


B2 said...

The Presence lives well in our Rabbi Dan and in our CABI and we are Blessed

Jane Holbrook said...

Your interpretation is inspiring. I am reminded to apply this principle to every area of my life. Thank you, Rabbi Dan.