Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Joseph Eskin, our 2016 Rosh Limudei Yahadut. Joseph was also Rosh Tikvah for three summers. A lifetime Ramahnik, Joseph, a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan, is currently studying at Yeshivat Hadar in the yearlong fellowship. Reflections on Parashat T’rumah by Joseph Eskin
In this week’s parashah of T’rumah, we read the instructions for constructing the Mishkan, the sanctuary in which God’s presence will dwell among B’nei Yisrael (the Israelites) during their time in the desert. God’s directions to Moses are an incredibly detailed description of the creation of sacred space, and the individual features of the Mishkan are each fascinating in their own right. This week, though, as I read about the creation of sacred space, I could not help but think about the desecration of sacred space that the Jewish community has suffered from and that all Americans have borne witness to over the past two weeks: the vandalism of hundreds of gravestones at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
There is something particularly painful about an attack on a cemetery, which is often among the first institutions a Jewish community creates when it establishes itself, and which testifies to a community’s commitment to its history and its future in a specific place. Yet amid the fear and uncertainty raised by these attacks, a glimmer of hope shone through in efforts by American Muslims who, as of this writing, have raised over $130,000 to help the St. Louis Jewish community repair and rebuild its cemetery.
That act of generosity helped me find new resonance in the second verse of Exodus Chapter 25, in which God commands Moses, “Speak to B’nei Yisrael, and have them take an offering for me; You shall take my offering from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity (ידבנו לבו/yidvenu libo).” Rashi comments that the word yidvenu comes from the root word נדבה/nedavah, and understands this act of donation to the Mishkan as an act of goodwill. At the very beginning of the parashah, before specifying the exacting details of construction, God establishes that the emotional basis of the Mishkan will be kindness and altruism. The precise physical structure of the Mishkan is certainly important, but underlying all of it is the generosity and communal goodwill of the people. It is that feeling, as much as the architecture itself, which makes the sanctuary an appropriate dwelling place for God’s presence. Perhaps without that feeling, it would not be a sanctuary at all.
In the thirteen years that I have spent at Camp Ramah, it has become clearer and clearer to me that the same is true of the physical space and the experience that we build each summer. Campers create amazing and intricate projects each summer, from pieces of art and woodwork to musical theater productions and cabin cheers. Jokes, friendships, songs and memories become the material that our weeks together weave into beautiful tapestries. But beneath the tangible products of a summer is a commitment by each person at camp to every other person at camp, a willingness to give openly and generously of themselves. It is that feeling which makes everything at camp possible, that same feeling which helps communities like those in St. Louis and Philadelphia, across political, ethnic, religious, and cultural divides, unite and rebuild in the face of tragedy. That is exactly the same feeling which makes it possible for God’s presence to dwell among us.