Wow, just reading Terumah, this week’s parasha, you just can’t avoid the obvious: God told the Israelites to make one fancy place to store the tablets Moses brought down from the mountaintop. I mean, really fancy. Multi-colored clothes, fine linen, acacia wood, and of course, pure gold. People really dug in to find the finest of the fine materials with which to make this holy place. And it’s not just the tabernacle cover; it’s the lampstand, the cherubim, the cups….all of it.
Clearly, the Torah is telling us that there is a lot of store put into material items. Things matter. How we decorate and keep the Tabernacle isn’t just personal taste – it comes from God, ad it’s directed to the entire community. Material things matter.
This week, I was at the JFNA Professional Institute, a gathering of senior management of Jewish Federations from all over North America. It was held in Houston, TX. I arrived on behalf of Spertus, to expand our presence among the Federation community, and look for good matches for our various graduate degrees and certificates. It started out as a typical conference…until the first evening’s program.
We all boarded buses and drove to the Houston JCC. Remember what happened to Houston in late August, 2017? Well it happened with a vengeance to the neighborhood surrounding the Houston JCC. The Jewish community of Houston is largely centered in a 2 mile area of town. Situated along one of the bayous in the city, this area felt the full force of the hurricane. The JCC took in 10 feet of water. (Look at the room you’re in, now go up 10 feet on the walls, and imagine that room filled with dirty water. For days.) We heard from Houstonians, how they were affected by the storm, how they got the J up and running to help others who needed so much, even as their own homes were flooded out. Huge questions face the Jewish community there. How do you recreate a Jewish community when people aren’t sure they can stay in the area? Where do you rebuild what’s destroyed? Where do you place a new synagogue, if you have to? Where do you move if you’re used to being able to walk to shul? Do you stay, or pick a different end of town. The questions are endless.
The help that Houston received, and continues to receive, from Jewish communities all over the world means so much to them, and day by day, they’re rebuilding, moving through, not past, their deep and lasting trauma.That is one remarkable community, and every one of the people who were there have the same, yet so different, story. One woman compared it to Sinai – we were all there at the same event, yet we experienced it differently, together.
Another remarkable community was forged from slavery and created in the wilderness, and they received the instructions on how to make a Tabernacle worthy of its contents. Months before, slaves grabbed what they could and left in the middle of the night. Harvey victims faced a similar moment – what do you take? How much? What’s important, what gets left behind, destined to be destroyed? I’m struck by the contrast this week between the emphasis on the fanciest, finest materials for the Tabernacle, and the realization that material things are just that…things…when the waters rush in and the storm can’t be contained. Comfortable seats, lovely carpets, gorgeous windows are all gone. After the storm, the most humble of containers was good enough for the Torahs that were saved. Tubs of clothes grabbed in haste replaced beautiful closets. Paper cups became Kiddush cups.
We are inclined to make beautiful, holy places, and I’m sure the rebuilt synagogues of Houston will be lovely. But I’m not sure I will read the linen and gold of Terumah the same way ever again.