Make me a Sanctuary
My Hebrew high students and I this week were studying the history of Jews in the United States. The first of us came here in 1654. We found out that 7,000 Jews served in the union army during the Civil War and 3,000 Jews served in the confederate army during the Civil War. We heard historians describe how old world myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about Jews migrated to the US. And while George Washington himself extended prayers and blessings to the Jewish community anti-Semitism lingered and bubbled up from time to time, often at moments of crisis. Confederate politician Judah P. Benjamin reached the highest echelon of southern leadership, but when the Confederates started to lose ground, other Southern leaders lashed out at him, blamed him, and targeted him with ant-Jewish screed.
We’ve seen tragically how the same has happened in a troubling wave – JCCs and Jewish schools threatened in 33 states including right here in Plainview, a bullet through the window of a synagogue in Indiana, Jewish cemeteries desecrated in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and now Rochester.
Like the uplifting message from George Washington, the response of fellow Jews, other faith groups, and leaders, has been support, solidarity, and mutual aid. When I went to Philadelphia this past Tuesday to help out at Mt. Carmel cemetery, there were people of all faith and ethnicities there. America came to Philadelphia, the city of ‘Brotherly Love’.
But like our ancestors in the wilderness, somewhere in between Egypt and the Holy Land, we find ourselves now perhaps feeling a bit less secure and more concerned. Is this where the hatred will end, or will it escalate? The German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote a compelling teaching, one that is now inscribed in the ground in plaza in Berlin, “Wherever they burn books, in the end human beings will come to the same fate.” But we should not be alarmed so much as aware. We should not cower in fear, but stand in confidence, solidarity, strength, and resolve. The strength of gathering here to pray, to be with friends and fellow community members, celebrating a bat mitzvah, singing, and opening our hearts to God and God’s teachings – all these things are an intentional response to hate, a response that can give us the strength to endure.
We need the community around us. We need to make sure each and every person, young, in the middle, and older, feels like he or she is welcome here and included. No one here should feel left out because we are all one family. All of us are valuable in God's eyes and all of us deserving a place at the same table of fellowship.
In today’s Torah reading we heard God say, “Ve’asu li mikdash ve’sha’chanti be’to’cham.” ‘Make for me a holy place that I may dwell amongst them.’ That I may dwell amongst them – God is not interested in having an elaborate place to live. God is interested in a place that symbolizes God’s Presence for the entire people, a place where God’s She’chinah, God’s earthly manifestation, can energize all the people from the center of the encampment as all the tribes surround the holy place over 40 years of wandering.
The Midrash explains (Pesikta Zutarta Lekach Tov) that through the Mikdash, the holy place, God shows love for the people by placing part of Godself there, literally squeezing Godself into that space – that space that everyone shares but only a select few priests and Levites may enter. It’s similar to the statue of liberty, a beautiful monument to freedom that a small group of people can enter but that stands as a bright light of hope and unity to everyone else.
The more connected we can be, the stronger we can be as we confront the most recent surge of hate. Before we leave here today, introduce yourself to someone here you do not know, find out their story, share your own; join us to pray on Shabbat and during the week, join us next Saturday night when we read the Megillah and celebrate our striving to overcome the intolerance and suspicion and violence that enemies seek to do with joyful singing and the sense of humor that has helped us get through painful times past. Today is a day to seek and celebrate everything that draws us together and to push aside all the minor and trivial things that too often divide us. May our hearts be open, our minds be flexible, and our spirits willing to animate us in this holy and necessary work.