This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19), begins the instructions God gives Moses for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the first sacred space that the Israelites will have to worship God. “And let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).
In March of 2006, I was privileged to lead a group of college students to the Gulf Coast to rebuild houses destroyed by hurricane Katrina. One afternoon, we went to New Orleans and visited Temple Beth Israel, the only synagogue completely ruined by the hurricane. As we approached the building, I noticed, above the waterlines, that same verse in Hebrew. We entered the building. One of the students was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and he was very embarrassed, saying over and over, “If I had known we were going to a synagogue, I would have dressed appropriately.” It was almost laughable. The only really appropriate dress for that building was a HAZMAT suit. It was a wreck. Black mold covered the religious school posters. All of its Torahs and sacred books had been taken away and were awaiting burial – seven Torah scrolls and over 3,000 volumes. Velvet Torah mantles and prayer shawls, faded and streaked and matted with dirt, had been hung out to dry on the sanctuary’s railings. We met with the president of the synagogue and two other members. One of them had to wear a safety mask, because he had spent so much time cleaning the building during the previous six months that he had breathing problems from the mold. And yet, the student who felt underdressed had sensed the holiness in that place, so palpable that there was no doubt in any of our minds that God still dwelt there, even though the accommodations weren’t ideal.
The Israelites in this Torah portion are about to learn about sacred space. God wants us to set aside a holy place to come to meet God. And as the words of Exodus suggest, if we do create such a sanctuary, God has promised to be there.