This drash was delivered at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland.
Parashat Terumah 5779
4 Adar Rishon, 5779
Shabbat shalom! It is a real honor and privilege to be with you all today on this Shabbat in which we lift up, honor and celebrate Jews with disabilities and all that we bring to our sacred communities as we observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month alongside countless other communities across the continent.
For the next few weeks, we will be reading a series of parshiot which outline the construction of the Mishkan—or portable sanctuary—which the Children Of Israel carried with them throughout their wanderings in the desert. Every last detail is tended to. The materials are chosen just so and the specifications, from the dimensions of the Mishkan to the sacred implements within are described with painstaking exactitude. The Torah devotes some 400 pesukim to the construction of the Mishkan and there lies its significance. Were the subject not of such central import, we would not find such tremendously detailed descriptions of every last element of the sanctuary. The fact that the Torah devotes this much space to the Mishkan’s construction instructs us to take to heart just how meaningful this project was.
Our parsha opens with HaShem telling Moses to say to the Children of Israel that all whose heart moves them should bring gifts for the building of the Mishkan, including gifts of gold, silver, copper and beautifully colored yarns and other fabrics. It is significant that HaShem directs this commandment to the entire community, according to their ability or, in the Torah’s words, as their heart so moves them. The Torah is here teaching us that every contribution, no matter of what type or size is of infinite and inherent value. Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion month was begun nearly a decade ago as a means of lifting up and celebrating the contributions of Jews with disabilities to our Jewish community, as well as offering us a sacred opportunity to do a cheshbon hanefesh as a collective to see where we are excelling and in which areas we might want to strive even higher. As our tradition reminds us in Genesis 1:27, we are all created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d and as such, we each embody a spark of the divine within. The way in which we carry ourselves through the world and contribute to our communities is unique to us—no human being is created more in the image of G-d than any other. As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel taught, we each have our own maslul, or path in life, and no two people have the same path. As such, the gifts that we each bring to the building of the Mishkan, with heartfelt intention, reflect our unique capabilities and the innermost desires of our hearts and souls.
We are told in Exodus 25:8 to make for HaShem a sanctuary so that HaShem might dwell amongst us. All of the elaborate work that is going into the specificity of the Mishkan and all of its implements and furnishings is entirely in service of creating a sanctuary in which HaShem’s presence may be felt amongst us. I have been drawn of late to the notion that the Mishkan’s construction isn’t so that HaShem can dwell amongst us as a collective people and nation only, but rather we each contribute to the building of the Mishkan so that HaShem’s presence can dwell within each of us individually. Typically, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is a time for us to assess our physical sanctuaries in line with the first interpretation of this verse. We assess the ways in which we are building physically inclusive sanctuaries in terms of the accommodations in place—ramps, alternate-format siddurim including Braille and large print, or modifications enabling those with hearing impairments to enjoy full access to our prayer and programming. Or we might examine the inclusivity of our synagogue’s other activities including social gatherings, kiddush on Shabbat and festivals, etc. We might pick a priority or two to work on during the coming year, returning to it in the following year and measuring the progress we’ve made or the areas for growth which still remain.
If, instead, we choose to take the second approach, we are compelled to examine how we carry ourselves in the world and whether that is a reflection of the notion that the sanctuaries we build aren’t so that G-d can dwell externally, but rather, our sanctuaries are built specifically and precisely so that G-d’s indwelling presence can be felt internally as a community and within each of us as an individual. In other words, how is my community a dwelling place for the divine? How am I a dwelling place for the divine?
It is easy to use JDAIM as an opportunity to do an external accounting—is our building accessible?—and much harder for us to take a look at our community and the fabric that holds it together and ask, am I building a sanctuary that reflects me and my needs alone, or am I taking to heart that every spark of the divine that we embody can dwell in this holy place? When we build truly and deeply inclusive communities, we are able to make the Divine Presence or Shechinah that much more manifest.
Throughout my Jewish journey, I have been blessed to find myself in countless spaces that did strive, every day to live out our people’s mission to be a light unto the nations. Access isn’t a nice afterthought but rather part of the very fabric with which our communities are built and sustained. And that takes many years of hard and messy work, along with a commitment to remembering that we are all in process, all growing. While in rabbinical school, I encountered many individuals who took a risk—who believed in the potential of a rabbi who presented needs they had never before encountered—and said yes. Perhaps that yes involved out-of-the-box thinking and innovating, perhaps that yes involved rethinking aspects of a course or curriculum, but the enthusiasm of the yes remained a constant, even when getting to that yes took work.
Unfortunately, I have also found myself in far too many spaces in which that hoped-for yes turned out to be a no, in which fear of the unknown overshadowed the ark of possibility, in which the fear of doing the wrong thing meant that nothing was done at all. Getting out of our comfort zones, getting proximate to that which leaves us sitting with just how little we truly know rattles far too many of us. Whether it is out of prejudice or malice, ignorance or fear, the end result remains the same. The sanctuaries, internal and external that we fashion for HaShem do not allow HaShem’s presence to truly dwell because all of the divine sparks that G-d’s children carry within aren’t able to find their spiritual home.
This, truly, is the work of inclusion. We do inclusion when we prioritize relationship, genuine, mutual, reciprocal relationship. Inclusion comes when we remember that each individual is, as our Mishnah in Sanhedrin reminds us, a world unto him, her or their self—a world of complexity, a world of possibility and promise. Inclusion comes when we value the gifts that we each bring to our sanctuaries no matter how big or small, prominent or behind the scenes. Inclusion happens when we concern ourselves more with how people feel inside our sanctuaries than in telling the world how inclusive we are. May we always strive to continue to bring the gifts of our hearts towards building truly inclusive and accessible spiritual homes for us all.