Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
There is a famous story of the man who walks by a large construction site in the middle of a hot summer day. “What are you doing?” he asks some of the workers at the site. One worker responds, “I’m sweating and dragging my body around in this awful heat, day in and day out, laying bricks.” A second worker answers, “I’m working as part of this team to build a building according to the designs of the architect and successfully complete this project.” Then a third worker pauses for a moment, gazes at the work before him and replies, “I am helping to build a Temple to God!”
What it means to have a religious perspective on life is to see the miraculous in the everyday. It is to wake up each morning and feel moved to offer prayers of gratitude for the blessings of life, for the unfathomable miracles of the human body and its trillions of cells that all work in harmony to allow us to greet each day as a divine gift. It is to discover every day untold opportunities for experiencing the fundamental connectedness of the entire universe, to feel the privilege of being born as a creature who can experience love and wonder and mystery and celebrate what theologian Max Kedushin once called the “ordinary mysticism” of life.
The Torah this week tells us that Moses invited everyone from among the Israelite people “whose hearts moved them” to become part of the building of the Sanctuary to God in the wilderness. Everyone was given the opportunity to contribute whatever they could. Some brought gold, others silver, others cloth or rings, or purple and crimson yarns, or copper bowls, or wood for the building. Those who could spin cloth would do so, others who could work with their hands would join in the work of creating a sacred space within which the people could experience God’s presence in their midst, and those who could simply afford to contribute financial resources would do that.
It was the most extraordinary and successful “capital campaign” in Jewish history. The Torah tells us that morning after morning people brought the offerings of their hearts and dreams and passions until, within a short time, the builders came to Moses and said, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the work that God has commanded to be done.” Moses then declared to the entire community, “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the Sanctuary,” and the people stopped because their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.
That is every rabbi’s or minister’s dream. That every church and every synagogue and every spiritual sanctuary in every religious community on our planet has to turn to its members and say, “We have more than enough to fulfill the spiritual tasks that have to be done.”
I have always had a philosophy that a synagogue is a communal institution and not a private-membership club. I remember when I first read about Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas about what he called an “organic Jewish community” that was able to serve everyone regardless of income, regardless of worship style or level of ritual observance or particular interest or passions. It was a vision of a kind of democratic, participatory community where, just like in the Torah portion, everyone gave what they could (kind of a Karl Marx vision of Judaism, I suppose) according to their ability and therefore there would always be enough to support the entire community.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but we so often fall short of that vision. I have always insisted in my own congregation for the past 27 years that we have an official, stated policy that anyone can join KI for any amount of money and that income and financial ability are never barriers to full membership or participation or to a Jewish education for any child.
I’d like any Jew who wants to be part of my synagogue to be able to join without thought to what it costs. But I know that’s not really what happens. People do think about the money and most of them do feel uncomfortable if they aren’t able to pay what others are expected to pay.
So I still dream of the day when people don’t shy away because they are embarrassed by their own financial situation. That would be the day when every child celebrates Jewish life, getting the best Jewish education that creative minds can provide from birth to death, and every adult finds meaning, purpose and spiritual fulfillment through participation in the life of a synagogue community because they know that there are enough financial resources to provide the most dynamic and vibrant Jewish experiences imaginable.
Of course, the wisdom of the Torah this week is to remind us that ultimately it’s not supposed to be about resources or the economy — it’s supposed to be about heart. Heart and soul. It’s about our hearts being moved by the passion for doing holy work, about the spirit of inspiration touching our lives, about seeing the world as abundant and not impoverished.
Think about this week’s remarkable Torah tale: Even a rag-tag group of former slaves who had only recently been redeemed from the degradation and poverty of enslavement in Egypt discovered — when their hearts were truly moved by the power of God’s challenge to bring holiness into their world — that even they could find the resources to create a sanctuary in the midst of the desert.
If they could create that spiritual magic in the middle of the terrifying wilderness, imagine what we can create in this, the most abundant civilization in the entire history of humanity, when our hearts are as moved as theirs.
(Check out www.rebreuben.com , www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).
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