Terumah 5779

Terumah 5779

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.

Terumah 5776

This drash was originally delivered at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 13, 2016.

Shabbat shalom!!! Thank you so much for having me in your community this Shabbat. It is such an honor and a privilege to be with you. This morning, I am going to be speaking about one of my favorite verses in the Torah, which has always resonated very deeply with me and is emblematic, I believe, of the value that we all hold that inclusion of all in our communities is a must and that each and every human being, regardless of what society tells us to the contrary, is created in the image of God.

Before going into a seemingly endless and incredibly complex description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them. This verse can be understood in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, it’s a paradox. If God is everywhere, why does God need a sanctuary to dwell in? And if the children of Israel are asked to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them, what, exactly are they being asked to do? And furthermore, why on earth does this sanctuary have to be so complicated and so ornate? Wouldn’t we want something simple, easily comprehensible and relatable for all? It seems, on the surface at least, like the barrier to entry—to being involved in the sacred work of construction, despite the fact that gifts are asked from all of the Israelites is quite high. I see this verse as intensely contradictory, which is why I believe it speaks so beautifully to the messiness that is the work of building sacred inclusive communities in which we can bring our full selves.

What does it mean for us in our day to build God a sanctuary in which God can dwell? Though the answer for me is multifaceted and ever-changing, one teaching that is rooted in Chasidism which I find to be both very inspiring and profoundly relevant is this notion that Judaism is a tradition that emphasizes taking the material world in which we all find ourselves and bringing spirituality into that world, lifting up the mundane and making it sacred. It is my belief that this is what is meant by God’s directive to all of us. And the work of transforming our communities in this way is incredibly hard and incredibly messy, but oh so worth it!

Lofty teachings can only get us so far, however. How can we apply this idea in a practical and sustainable way, and what do communities look like when the work of inclusion and integration of Jews with disabilities into all facets of life is realized? As Perkei Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers, a tractate in the Mishnah teaches us, though we may not complete the work, we are not free to desist from it. Though so many of us yearn for progress to come speedily and swiftly, progress, change and transformation come gradually and, in my experience, some of the greatest rewards come through the building blocks of relationships built up over time and after sustained effort and drive.

Though I cannot speak directly to what has gone on in your community around issues of access and inclusion for folks with disabilities, in my experience, through my time as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in many other venues, when the topic of including Jews with disabilities and their families and friends is broached, the angle taken is a practical and programmatic one. How do we make our synagogue buildings and other communal spaces accessible for those who cannot use stairs? What about those who are deaf or hard of hearing—do we have sign language interpretation available or know where to get it? And for folks who are blind and visually impaired, do we have materials in Braille, audio and large print available? How about those in our communities who are living with mental health conditions? Are our communities wholly committed to the critical work of DE stigmatization, have we worked to create synagogue communities that welcome them in with open arms and do not further shame or alienate them? And I am acutely aware that these practical access questions only cover a small subsection of the larger disability community—there are so many unique and varied needs and so many areas in which the resources just aren’t there or the questions haven’t been asked. And I am deeply aware that my own limited perspective means that just as I find myself wholly immersed in the work of inclusion of folks with disabilities into Jewish life from my particular vantage point, I, too, have so much learning and growing to do.

Asking ourselves hard questions about the physical and attitudinal access of our communities is an important first step and ought not be minimized. Nevertheless, it is only the first step. It is much harder, I believe, to commit oneself to the work of inclusion—of Jews with disabilities or any other marginalized group–if we think of them as abstract and not concrete. By abstract I mean people that we see ourselves as in a transactional relationship with, a model that is too often used when we think of community service, for instance, in which one party is the giver and the other the receiver. In such a scenario, often the individual with a disability is in the perpetual role of receiver and presumed to be incapable of reciprocity. The real work begins in earnest, I wholeheartedly believe, when we begin reaching out and engaging in real, mutual, genuine, respectful relationship. When we think of someone as always in the role of the other, the other whom it is our moral, religious or social duty to help, we keep those folks at arm’s length. We don’t allow ourselves to get out of our comfort zones—and getting out of one’s comfort zone, as this introvert well knows, is a challenge for many of us. We might find ourselves suddenly having to grapple with ugly biases or misconceptions that we’d been holding and aren’t proud of. Fundamental and foundational ideas about how the world works might be upended. We might begin to seriously wrestle with what it means to have access or opportunity when another doesn’t. These are all general examples which point to a larger issue, which is that as desperately needed as physical access and attitudinal adjustment on the part of our clergy, congregational and other professionals and lay community members is, what is as equally a crucial ingredient is real work at bringing folks in and extending a warm and genuine hand of friendship.

Too often, what I hear from individuals with disabilities who are trying to access Jewish community is that those around them felt profoundly discomfited by their presence. Folks who have sustained lived experience of instinctively knowing when others are uncomfortable around them for whatever reason, folks for whom disability—perhaps amongst other things as well—has presented a barrier to social inclusion as much as spiritual inclusion are often incredibly reluctant to approach a new synagogue for fear of rejection, as I know from my own life. I am in an incredibly privileged position. I am able to access Jewish spaces and resources and have an amplified voice on disability issues often owing to my being a rabbinical student, and it is because of this that I feel it my personal and sacred responsibility to do all I can to get more of our communities on board with how important it is to include all of us. I, too, know how hurtful it can be when you try to enter a Jewish space and are met with profound coldness. And those memories, particularly when they happen in the context of religious communities, communities in which we’re told we will be loved for who we are and instead are met with the opposite are lasting ones.

Choosing to present yourself to a new community is a tremendous act of bravery, courage and dare I say faith when for your entire life you may have gotten the message in a multitude of ways that you don’t belong, you’re not wanted here. Often, folks assume a default position of not being wanted and not belonging until proven otherwise, which is both a profoundly heartbreaking and immensely understandable position in my view. It is because of this that saying that a community is welcoming isn’t enough—that declaration must be coupled with tangible and sustained action.

As my views on how to practically do the work of inclusion have evolved, I have come to the firmly held belief that relationship is absolutely key. When an individual or family has a connection with people in the synagogue—and not merely because those folks help facilitate access—but because they have been able to connect around a multitude of shared interests and concerns, when genuine, reciprocal relationships begin to form, that’s when the work of inclusion really gets going. All of the accommodations in the world mean little if the individual is alienated from community life. All of the Braille siddurim and chumashim in the world mean little if every Shabbat a blind congregant comes to shul and is completely ignored at Kiddush. All of the supports provided mean little if the autistic child in the religious school is mocked or teased by classmates. In other words, the individuals in our communities with disabilities are yearning to be as integrally a part of the communal fabric as everyone else.

There is an oft-repeated saying in some segments of the disability community that access isn’t an add-on or a nice thing to do—it is the right thing to do. Access, defined broadly as I am trying to do here—is not merely providing the physical or programmatic accommodations needed. It is as much about feeling like every time you are in a space that the totality of your personhood is loved, accepted and respected, and that you are seen for who you truly are—a unique, irreplaceable individual created in the image of God. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham—we are instructed by God to build a sanctuary so God can dwell amongst us. I noted earlier that having such fixed and complex instructions could be seen as posing a tremendous barrier to participation by the entire community. Making all feel welcome in our communities involves a lot of imagination, willingness to think outside of the box, to make mistakes and to grow from them. Indeed, it takes tremendous courage. God doesn’t leave room for error in God’s instructions to us, and still, the larger message of this pivotal commandment I believe has so much richness and spiritual depth and much to teach us in our own day. God can dwell in those sanctuaries where every person is valued and where we live out the teaching found in Genesis 1:27 that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. That, I believe, is God’s directive to us in our parsha this week. May we all continue that holy work. Thank you all so much. Shabbat shalom!