Drash on Parashat Terumah
Rabbi Nathan Alfred
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore
“Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Synagogue building projects owe much to this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, which begins by outlining the principle that everyone is invited to donate freely to the construction of the Tabernacle. Moses is instructed by God to let all the Israelites give to their heart’s content, and there is an array of building materials listed that included precious metals and gems, wood, oil and spice. While at first glance this might not appear to be suited to every budget, a midrash helpfully reminds us that every Israelite had been newly enriched by the stripping of their neighbours on their departure from Egypt.
Modern Jewish congregations are somewhat less fortunate. When my community, the United Hebrew Congregation (Singapore), saw its membership rising over several years, they faced a choice: do we build a shul or do we employ a rabbi? Which comes first? Happily (for me at least!) three years ago the community made the right choice and decided to start with religious leadership. Singapore property prices may have had something to do with it, but more importantly the board chose to invest in personnel, whilst operating a “shul without walls”.
The same can be said for the biblical passage as well. The book of Exodus has produced the necessary leadership, Moses, to manage the escape from Egypt. Moses’ brother, Aaron, will take on the mantle of the priesthood, whilst their sister Miriam has emerged as a leader of women. A few tweaks to Moses’ managerial style have been provided by his father-in-law, Jethro, and a subsequent visit to Mount Sinai has brought the Ten Commandments and the legal infrastructure by which the community will be governed. The scene is set, and now God gives instruction for a physical space, whose parameters and perimeters will be outlined in great detail over the subsequent chapters.
The sages were quite taken by the idea that God needed somewhere to dwell. A parable is told, comparing the parasha to a king who had an only daughter. After she got married, the new husband wanted to return to his home with his new wife. This presented a royal dilemma: the king did not want to leave his daughter, his only child, and yet he understood that she must travel with her husband. Therefore he asked for a favour: make me a small house, where I can dwell with you.
The Torah is that daughter, and God needs somewhere to dwell. Similarly a Sefer Torah is a physical thing, and requires a physical home also. In an internet era when so much has been transferred to the ether, at times a Torah scroll can possess a jarring if reassuring physicality. When a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah, they are often struck by the practical difficulties of reading from the Torah. They struggle to lean over its tall columns of text, and marvel over its handwritten calligraphy. For all that we move towards “virtual community”, the Torah grounds us in the unchanging realities of physical life.
All of which serves to remind us of the importance of Jewish infrastructure, in Asia too. At the Asia Progressive Judaism conference in Hong Kong last month several communities, including Singapore and Shanghai, talked of their dreams to construct new synagogue buildings. As more and more take advantage of economic opportunities across the continent, the Jewish people require the sanctuaries across Asia that can sustain them. Our Torah portion Terumah is a reminder that the choice should not be “building or rabbi?”, but that a Jewish community should aim for both. Let the synagogue building project begin!