A Summer Place: Parshat Terumah | Congregation Beth Am

A Summer Place: Parshat Terumah

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
February 7, 2003

It was a week without rain, without a single dark cloud on the horizon. After days and days of foggy, overcast gray, the sunshine seemed like a gift. Clear blue skies, afternoons that were almost balmy, and flowers exploding up and down the streets, trees blossoming in pink and white, a foretaste of spring.

Not a dark cloud on the horizon…except in our hearts. We spent this beautiful sunny week listening to talk of war and biological poisons; mourning tragedy in the high heavens that scattered its debris all over the country; and sharing in the very quiet and private grief of one family, our neighbors, whose six year old daughter was killed just a few minutes from here.

Judith Viorst, who wrote a book called “Necessary Losses,” was once asked what had been the most painful loss she’d ever suffered. She answered, “the loss of the illusion that I could protect my children.” That illusion has been cruelly shattered – not only for Tom Malzbender, forced to watch as his little girl, riding her bike just a few yards in front of him, was struck down by a hit and run driver – it’s an illusion lost to all parents today. We know that we cannot protect the children we love from the dangers of this world, though we try as hard as we can and as long as we can to shield them. Sooner or later they will come to know, as all of us know, that violence and suffering are part of life.

“Fragments of a dream,” read the headline in Ma’ariv, a popular Israeli newspaper, on the morning that Ilan Ramon’s spacecraft broke up 40 miles above the earth. How desperately all Israelis had longed for something to celebrate, some source of pride and joy in these grim days of intifada. In another Israeli paper, Ha’Aretz, a columnist wrote of “this hope that keeps shattering, the hope of freeing ourselves from our gravitational destiny, of floating in some weightless normalcy in utter disregard of the gravity of our existence.”

His despairing phrases were echoed in the simpler words of an Israeli boy from a high school in Kiryat Motzkin – one of a handful of schools chosen to send a scientific experiment up in the space shuttle – in this case, blue and white crystals, to represent the flag of Israel. “Maybe someone didn’t want us to be happy,” said the 16 year-old. “No matter what we do, nothing comes up right.”

Here in America, here in the Silicon Valley, we know what he meant. Ever since September 11th, we’ve endured an onslaught of loss – and after a while, it all begins to feel like too much. Too much sadness, public and private. How do we absorb the sheer weight of it? How do we withstand such pain and disappointment – our own economic struggles and family problems, our friends’ illnesses, our neighbors’ grief, our nation’s tragedy and Israel’s continuing sorrow?

If there is one thing Jews should know something about, it is resilience – the ability to face up to hard times without letting them break us. We read this week in the Torah some words that instruct us in the art of resistance. “Let them build Me a sanctuary,” says God, that I may dwell within them” [Ex.25:8]. Our Sages note that the text does not say, “that I may dwell within it” – that is, the sanctuary. It is not that God resides in a building, keeps office hours in a physical structure. Instead, a midrash says, each of us should make a sanctuary within our own hearts, a place where the Holy Presence may dwell [Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh, in Wellsprings of Torah].

This has a vague and ethereal sound. What can it possibly mean to make a sanctuary within ourselves? Some say that it means we should make our homes into sanctuaries – safe places, places of warmth, stability, nourishment and love, which sustain us in the midst of sad and stressful times. Others say that the verse refers not to our homes but to our own bodies, and teaches that we need to treat them with reverence, to care for our own physical and emotional being so that we are strong enough to meet the challenges we face. It is a mitzvah, a religious duty, to preserve our health and fortify our spirits by seeking help and counsel at difficult times.

Or perhaps it means even more. I thought, during this brutally difficult week, of how much I need to have a sanctuary within – a place deep inside myself that is sacred and inviolable – that cannot be touched by the suffering that is all around. How can we live in this world, how can we not be shattered by its blows, if we don’t have strength at the core – a rock-bottom source of courage and hope?

“In the depths of winter,” wrote Albert Camus, “I discovered within myself an invincible summer.” I carry those words with me as a talisman. They remind me of the need to build up within myself my own sources of resistance to despair. The inner sanctuary is the part of us that the world cannot break. It is where we keep our most precious things – the things that make life worth living, despite pain, despite loss. It is the sacred center of our being, where we hold on to what we love and what we believe most deeply. It is where we find the strength to get up in the morning and see what the new day might bring.

Ilan Ramon carried a Torah scroll with him into space, and a drawing made by a young boy imprisoned in Thieresienstadt. We all know why. We know the story of a family that came through the fires of World War II and planted itself in the land of Israel, determined to be reborn and to flourish there. The boy they raised in that land was called Ilan, which means “a tree,” and he grew into a hero. Before he died, he asked all of us to believe, with him, that the future will be better. He called us to plant trees in Israel – beautiful, useful, nourishing, protective – symbols of hope for tomorrow. Asked last Thursday what the world looked like to him in space, Ilan said, "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile."

Build Me a sanctuary, says God, that I may dwell within you. Fortify yourself against the pain of life. Build Me a sanctuary, and furnish it with all the beautiful and precious things you can gather. Take music and books into your heart. Rejoice in the sunshine, in the surging ocean, in trees bright with blossoms. Cherish love, wherever you find it. Cultivate faith; plant your roots in family and tradition; seek reasons to hope; search out teachings that will lift you out of the darkness. In the midst of winter, find within yourself an invincible summer.

We gather tonight to defend ourselves against the darkness. As we fill this fragile space with Shabbat and shalom, let us fill ourselves as well – with light, with warmth, with peace and strength. And let us take them with us when we leave this place.

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