Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah Portion is Parashat Terumah, in which the Israelites begin receiving instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary that will wander the desert with them. God tells Moses to have the people start to gather up all their most precious materials and tells him how the Mishkan should be built, with the Ark containing the holy tablets of the Ten Commandments at the center.
The great Torah commentator known as Chizkuni, a 13th century French rabbi who often quotes his predecessor, the 11th century French rabbi known as Rashi, suggests that the Ark’s position at the center of the Mishkan is evidence that the Ark is to be treated with “utmost reverence.” The tablets inside contain the heart of the covenant between the Jewish people and God, and must be protected from the outside world, from the bumps of travel, from natural disasters, and from the mess of the sacrifices happening in the outer layer of the Mishkan.
The Haftarah for Parashat Terumah describes Solomon building the Temple, which was obviously more stable and secured, and fittingly much more ornate and elaborate. There are some significant differences in how each holy structure is built, but since Solomon based his Temple on the Mishkan, many of the materials are the same, and the Ark still remains at the very center.
Today, the Ark with the holy Torah scrolls remains the heart of any synagogue building, but Judaism in the modern world is much more individualized than it was in the days of the Mishkan or the Temple. We no longer offer physical sacrifices and we don’t need a Moses or his priests to be our conduits to God. Rabbis help lead prayer and teach Torah, but they can’t give you Torah or your personal relationship with God. We learn from all this that we must keep our own covenants with the Divine at the center of our being. Our inner selves must hold on to our own inner Torah. All that your religious faith has taught you, all that you believe God wants from you, your personal Divine spark that makes you b’tselem Elohim, made in the Divine image, you must keep at the center of your being. There, it will be safe from the hardships of life. Though doubt may creep in to your mind, with Torah at your center, your inner strength will prevail and you will persevere in the name of justice, mercy, and love, just as we learn from the holy texts.
The Torah I keep at my core has always been one for justice and equality. A teaching for peace and love and solidarity, I carry it with me when I encounter bigotry. Whether microaggressive or violent, whether aimed right at me and my people, or at my friends and neighbors, I refuse to allow prejudice to slide and the covenant I’ve made with God sits on my heart and reminds me to take action on these principles. And I pray that others find an inner Torah that similarly embraces the humanity of all people, that they find at their center a holy truth that we are all created in the image of God and deserve to be treated as such.
We thought it would be nice to include in tonight’s service a song that everyone would know, no matter your religion or ethnic background, so in just a moment our cantorial soloist will lead us in “God Bless America.” I last sang this song about a month ago while I sat in a holding cell in New York City with 18 other rabbis arrested in a protest against the recent anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and in particular, anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions we’d been hearing a lot lately. Although the United States has a dark history of allowing and even enforcing inequality, it has also proclaimed itself to be a nation for liberty and justice for all. I believe, and I think the other T’ruah rabbis would agree, that it is our responsibility as Americans of faith to remind ourselves and our country what that means. What liberty and justice looks like, who “all” entails, as the Torah teaches that there should be one rule of law for all people. It is out of our love this country, our appreciation that the United States is one of the only countries in the world that hasn’t tried to expel or exterminate its Jewish populations, our acknowledgment that Jews were immediately welcomed as full-fledged citizens by George Washington himself, that we cannot allow this country to turn its back on other refugees and people seeking the promises of America. God Bless America was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish man, and the rabbi who led us in singing it in jail told us it was inspired by the words of his immigrant mother. No matter how hard life in America was for a poor immigrant woman, relegated to difficult or demeaning work, speaking little to no English, she would still proclaim, “God Bless America” for the freedoms and opportunities she knew her family would find here that they couldn’t have back in Russia. Originally composed in 1918, the song was revised by Berlin in 1938 as he saw the rise of Hitler and once again recognize how lucky he was as a Jew to be here in safety. Although many of us may worry about safety in this country now as mosques are set on fire and synagogues are shot at, and hate crimes increase, we sing this song and hold our Divine Sparks in our hearts and know that together we can withstand whatever comes from the bumps of life, the mess of that which appears to be creeping in from the outside layers of society.
God bless us this Shabbat, all who have come to join us here tonight and all who are gathered in sanctuaries across the world, and God bless America.