After Swastikas – Building Sacred Space

A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Terumah
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

Dear friends,

Clearly what is on all our minds is the attack we experienced on our sacred space this week. It was shocking, painful and even disorienting. But the timing, according to our Jewish calendar, was actually quite remarkable. This attack took place during the week of parashat Terumah, that is, the week in which we read in the Torah about the mitzvah to create the very first Jewish sacred space, the Mishkan, a place for the indwelling of the Divine on the earth.

Many commentators through the ages have pointed out the beautiful and unusual language used in the Torah for this mitzvah. In the book of Exodus, 25:8, God tells Moshe, V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, have the people make me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them. Notice that the text says, dwell within them, NOT dwell within it. In other words, the purpose of this sacred building project and all its rituals was to deepen the relationship between the people and God, so that the people themselves might experience the Godliness that dwells within them and by extension, in all human beings. The mission of the project was not to build a building for God, but to create a space within each person for connection with the Divine Source. The Mishkan was meant to reflect the relationship between the people and God and in so doing, support the building of a sacred community.

This week, along with many businesses owned by people of color, or whose signage affirmed inclusive values, our sacred space was defiled. It was deeply disturbing and painful. But truly, it wasn’t about the paint, or the parking lot, or even about our building. It was an attack on our hearts and souls as Jews. Our building, like the Mishkan, is only as sacred as the actions of the people who dwell within. Our beautiful building is a container and a focal point for the holy work of being a sacred community.

And what does it mean to be a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah?

Have you ever looked closely at the Hebrew words inscribed on our building at the Court Street entrance, just below the words: Temple Israel?

It reads:בית כנסת ק׳ק ישראל – Beit K’nesset kuf ’’ kuf Yisrael. The two letters kuf and kuf are an abbreviation which stand for kehillah kedoshah, meaning holy community. So altogether the Hebrew inscription reads: Temple, Holy Community of Israel.

In this week’s Torah portion we also find some clues as to the meaning of a sacred community. The very first vessel to be built for the Mishkan is the Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark (Ex.26:10-22). The Ark is described as a wooden container covered in gold, on top of which sit two golden cherubs facing one another, with a small space between them. According to the text, the space between the cherubs is the place from which God’s voice issues to communicate with Moshe.

The possibility for a holy conversation lies within the space created between these two beings. Duality, implicit in the physical world and represented by the two cherubs, is bridged through relationship, through communication in the empty space between them.

Additionally, the Talmud relates that in the temple the curtains around the Holy of Holies would be pulled back on the High Holy Days and the Ark would be visible to the People. And what did the People see of the cherubs at these times? “They would be embracing one another.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a).

A sacred community is one that creates the space for communication and for loving encounters. Such a community creates a culture of inclusion but not sameness. It encourages deep listening and creates the safety for honest sharing. A sacred community is not defined by its building. It is defined by its people and the quality of the relationships we create.

This weekend, we will be honored to welcome our loving and supportive neighbors and friends from Portsmouth and beyond. On Sunday at 3:30 pm, our building will host the many voices of our extended community as we make space for the magnification of the Divine Presence among us. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.

This past week, one individual threw a dark shadow across Portsmouth, across the properties of our neighbors, onto our holy space and on our hearts. And what was the result? Our whole community opened its hearts to us with supportive messages and actions. Let us imagine that the sanctuary does not end when we exit the temple. All of Portsmouth is our holy sanctuary, a place for the indwelling of the Divine, if we build it so.

With blessings,
Rabba Kaya



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