Terumah – on sanctuary, on stories, and on space

This Torah portion includes the precise details by which the people are to build a sanctuary/tabernacle for prayer. The context in Exodus is that the people have begun to receive the law but have not yet received the entire Torah. The building of the sanctuary is meant to physically resemble the ways in which he people are becoming a people. The act of wandering is to signify a search or a dislocation. But the precision with which the sacred structures must be built suggests something of permanence. As the people begin to centre their lives around ritual practice, they will shed that sense of dislocation. A physical centre becomes a spiritual way of centring oneself and one’s community.

Some feel that the structure described in this portion is the first temple, while others think of it as the template for smaller temples that could have been built anywhere. What we see here is that the Priests are encouraging the people to build structures that will centralize communal ritual practice- thus ensuring Priestly power but also ensuring the people have a place to congregate. Congregations are not for everyone, but we can see in this passage the importance our early ancestors placed in finding ways to bring the community together. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, articulated that Judaism was a “civilization” and thus he reimagined synagogues as communal spaces that went beyond prayer. We find our Jewish community centres, congregations, or other groups and meeting spaces to be places for us to get in touch with our deepest selves – by getting in touch with our community.

For Humanistic Jews, it is not prayer that is important but people. We find value in our communities – Jewish and more broadly human. But we need places in which to congregate, to come together. Public spaces are disappearing in many of the cities in which we live. Parks, markets, arenas, these are the centres of human life. It’s where we run into our neighbours and friends. It’s where we can relax in nature or amongst beautiful architecture. Space matters, particularly as it can help to /construct communities and how they function.

There is a beautiful church in Ottawa, Ontario, a city about five hours from where I live. Whenever I am in Ottawa I go into that church, even for five minutes, and sit. I love that church because I know its history – an Italian sculptor came to Canada as part of a competition to win the commission for a sculpture on top of the Canadian parliament buildings. He was so sure he’d win that he did not consider how he would pay for his passage back to Italy if he lost, which he did. Desperate for funds, he convinced the church to take his sculpture instead – it sits on top of the entrance to this day. The church’s congregation outgrew its structure so they built a new church around it so as not to disrupt services, and then demolished the old one from the inside and carried it out the back. All of this is charming as it tells a story of religious life in Canada and how it has been defined by, and also helped to construct, space. But I really love the church because its architecture has a simple beauty. It is not ostentatious as some cathedrals. It is quaint and lovely. And, for me, it is sacred space. I am not a Christian and I do not pray, but I can find meaning in the human project of constructing spaces that are meant to inspire us and to represent the best of human ingenuity, creativity, and passion.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us of the Jewish project of constructing space – complete with symbols such as the menorah, the alter, the ark. Even for those of us who do not pray, we can find meaning in the physical structures that have inspired and housed Jewish communities for centuries. And we can consider what kinds of spaces may feed us today. What kind of beauty, what kind of community, are we looking for, and in what kind of house? Many Humanistic congregations lack buildings of our own. Our challenge is to find spaces that work for us and to remember that building community is an equally important project to building the spaces that house us.

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