Drash on Parashat Terumah 2022

Drash on Parashat Terumah

Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW

The Shabbat after the hostage crisis in Colleyville, Texas, USA, I added a blessing to our congregation’s nissim b’chol yom – “the miracles of the everyday.”  Though this series of b’rachot already gives thanks for freeing captives (matir asurim), on that Shabbat we also gave thanks for sanctuary chairs.  Halfway across the globe, one of these “everyday” furnishings had been used in Congregation Beth Israel’s sanctuary to escape the terrorist and free the captives.    

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, a captive who threw a chair at the terrorist holding the gun, had learnt in the Jewish community’s “Active Shooter” instruction sessions to take stock of where all building exits were located, and of which everyday items nearby could be used for self-defence.  In short, he was taught to have an exit strategy for every room in the building that he entered… even the sanctuary.

Evidently, instruction sessions like the one Rabbi Cytron-Walker took regularly suggest making “improvised weapons” of everyday items such as the “fire extinguisher, chair, scissors, pots/pans, pens, books, etc.”[i]  One Colleyville hostage said he “mentally prepared himself to use his prayer shawl around the hostage-taker’s neck or hand that was holding the gun.”[ii]  Who would have thought that this item he wraps around his shoulders every day would ever need to be re-imagined, re-purposed, re-deployed for such a task? 

Thank God there was a chair and that it was in the right place at the right time.  Of course, the miracle was that the Rabbi had both the physical strength and the presence of mind, after 11 hours of a living nightmare, to pick up that chair, throw it, and land it where he aimed it so they could make their escape.  The miracle was that the doors opened quickly enough (they don’t always).  The miracle was that no one tripped over each other as they rushed for the doors, for as one hostage said, “it’s not like the movies” where “everyone knows exactly what every other actor will do.”[iii]  The chair itself was not the miracle.  And yet, I said a blessing for sanctuary chairs last Shabbat.  Why?  Because I will never look at one the same way again.  And the nissim b’chol yom reflect those moments when we see the ordinary differently—the everyday in a new light.

This past Shabbat, I did not repeat the blessing for sanctuary chairs.  It felt right to say it just after Colleyville, but I do not want it to become liturgy.  Too much focus on one’s physical surroundings is not what sanctuaries are for. Sanctuaries, along with the sacred objects and furnishings inside them, are meant to elevate and inspire the spirit. They are meant to facilitate a community’s religious life.  They are meant to remind us where we come from; in some shuls, the chairs, walls, and Torah mantles have names of our grandparents on them.  In our sanctuary, a member stitched the parochet.  My parents gave me the yad that hangs from one of our scrolls, and yes, “you could poke an eye out with that thing,” but, God willing, I will never have to resort to using it as a weapon.  I hope I never have to think of it that way.  I hope our sanctuary chairs never have to be thrown.  I hope our tallitot never have to strangle or bind.  I already miss those days, just a few Shabbatot ago, when a sanctuary chair was just a chair.

So I relished reading Parashat Terumah this week.  It takes us back to a time when sanctuaries and their accoutrements were designed to serve a different purpose.  V’asu Li mikdash v’shacanti b’tocham—“They shall make for Me a sanctuary,” God instructs Moses, “that I may dwell in their midst.”[iv]  So the Israelites proceed to make a tabernacle, an ark, an altar, a table, bowls, ladles, jars, jugs, a lampstand, tongs, pans, and utensils.  And while a few chapters hence this space and its furnishings will be sanctified, these are not inherently worthy of blessing.  Rather, they are symbols.  Pastor and author Gordon Lathrop describes a symbol as “a gathering place for communal encounter with larger meaning or a thing that enables participation in that to which it refers.”  Our holy spaces and their objects are not meant to serve as weapons; they’re meant to serve as symbols.  They are symbols, Lathrop explains, “for mystery, for wider connection, for a barely remembered past, perhaps for good, most likely for God.”[v]     

Symbols point to something beyond themselves, says Lathrop.  A chair is just a chair, but we sanctify it because it points to Something Holy, says parashat Terumah.  I don’t want our sanctuary and its furnishings to point to how to escape a terrorist’s grip.  I want them to point to what God intended in parashat Terumah: a sense of God’s protecting presence among us; a reminder that we share common laws, order, and a tradition that teaches us to turn swords into ploughshares, not the other way around.  We’ll leave the latter to the security training programs. 

We won’t be making the blessing over sanctuary chairs part of our regular liturgy.  Week to week, shabbat to shabbat, we’ll stick with the age old prayers that “evil shall give way to integrity and goodness,”[vi] that God will “open the eyes of the blind,” and that nations shall “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor learn war any more.”[vii]  Beit Ya’akov, l’chu v’nelcha, b’or Adonai—Come, O House of Jacob, let us walk by the light of God.[viii]


[i] https://www.vcoe.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=8oDECuuhfqw%3D&portalid=7

[ii] https://denvergazette.com/ap/national/rabbi-says-he-threw-chair-at-synagogue-hostage-taker-before-lunging-for-the-door/article_e2f6dc4a-e339-5dc7-82b1-fc32448e0061.html

[iii] https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2022/01/17/hostage-details-calling-911-family-during-colleyville-synagogue-attack-it-is-not-like-the-movies/

[iv] Exodus 25:8

[v] Gordon W. Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

[vi] Mishkan T’filah: A Progressive Siddur, World Union for Progressive Judaism Edition, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2010.

[vii] Isaiah 2:4

[viii] Ibid, 2:5

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