Parshat Terumah

Torah Reading for Week of February 14 – February 20, 2010

“Build Me a Sanctuary”

by Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03
Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley

I serve as the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, in Sedona, Arizona. It is a community of people who began to gather together from the late 1980’s to celebrate holidays, and created an island of Yiddishkeit far from any urban Jewish center. The members had a dream of building a synagogue, but it seemed like an unlikely dream for so few families and retired couples. Rabbi Albert Plotkin, who lived in Phoenix and had just retired from Temple Beth Israel, was called, responded, and began offering services held in area churches once a month on Friday nights, beginning in 1991. Rabbi Plotkin continued, in his seventies and eighties, to lead services, Bible study, and life-cycle ceremonies during his once-a-month visits. He also encouraged the leadership of the congregation to raise money to buy land and build a synagogue.

Though Rabbi Plotkin was short in height, barely 5 feet tall, he was a great orator, operatic singer, author, and a community leader of great stature. For the Jewish community in Sedona, he taped a fundraising video, featuring him wrapped in a flowing tallit. As he stood in front of a gorgeous red rock formation in Sedona, he quoted the verse from Terumah, “Ve’asu-li mikdash v’shchanti b’tocham. If you build it, I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Not everyone was thrilled by the idea of raising money to build a synagogue. Why couldn’t they go on as before, meeting in rented spaces, bringing in the borrowed ark and Torah? But the leadership, backed by Rabbi Plotkin’s enthusiasm, prevailed, and in 2004 a beautiful, award-winning building was erected and dedicated. It is true, one can worship anywhere, but as with the ancient Israelites, a focus for prayer and service greatly enhanced the community involvement and dedication to Judaism. The truth is that the odd grammatical phrase isn’t what one would expect: Not “Make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell within it,” but rather“v’shachanti betocham, within them.” There is something about building a synagogue that better enables the people to feel G-d within themselves because they gave so much of their talent, time, money, artistic talent, or other contributions.

Ideally no “Mishkan”, Sanctuary, should have been needed after the Revelation at Sinai because the entire nation had achieved a level of prophecy, and every Jew was worthy of the “Shekhina,” the Divine Presence, to rest upon him or her as it later did on the Tabernacle, and even later would come to rest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Because of the inability to hold that sense of focused awe, as evidenced through the idol worship of the Golden Calf, it became necessary to create a central communal Sanctuary (The Golden Calf incident, though not presented until “Parshat Ki Tissa, is recognized by Rashi and other commentators to have come before the building of the Tabernacle). The portable Tabernacle in the wilderness, the centralized Temple in Jerusalem, the decentralized synagogues erected when Israel would be in exile, or up to our day in the Diaspora, all provide a place invested with sanctity where Jews as a community could partially recapture that Sinai Experience of Revelation.

So how to maintain that sense of excitement and personal commitment to a synagogue once it is finished? How do the newer members gain that sense of personal involvement and ownership? Or how to express that same involvement when there is no building? One year in Torah study, in a previous congregation where we used rented space and did not own the building, I arranged for the members to create a Mishkan during the service in the week of Parshat Terumah. I spread a blue cloth on a table, and brought many ceremonial objects – a Hanukkiah, a shofar, a tallit, a Kiddush cup, a prayer book, a grogger, and some greeting cards with symbols such as the Tree of Life, Hamsas, Stars of David and other recognizable Jewish elements on them. I asked all those assembled, “What do you bring to build our Mishkan?” And each person picked a symbol, brought it up to the cloth base, and told what their contribution was: “I have chosen the shofar, because I am the voice of the congregation, sending all the weekly messages to everyone.” “I am placing the candlesticks here, because I help set up for our Shabbat services, making sure that all the ceremonial objects are ready.” “I’m placing this card with the hamsa on it here representing my love of blessings.” “I visit the ill members along with others in our Bikkur Holim team, and I leave message of blessing with the ill people at home or in the hospital.” And so each person was able to express and be acknowledged for, his or her contribution to the whole functioning of our congregation. After about half an hour, there was a beautifully decorated Mishkan of many colors and elements right in our midst. It had a profound influence on all those participating, and was spoken about for a long time. Just like the weavers, metal craftsmen, and builders of the Mishkan in the desert, our contemporary congregants need to feel invested and a part of the holiness of our synagogues, whether they meet in their own building or not.

The Hassidic interpretation of the building of the Sanctuary along with the fashioning of each of the vessels and adornments seeks to equate each detail with ways in which we prepare our own inner chambers as a suitable dwelling place for G-d: the lamp, table, altar, all attain a symbolic meaning. Each one gave his or her own offering to the Tabernacle and all those beautifully crafted elements became joined together as if created by one hand. We revere the outer coverings, the decorated trappings of our traditions, while never allowing ourselves to forget that the houses of worship, the garb of prayer, the ceremonial objects fashioned and brought out for use at the appointed times are only casings for the inner connection to the One which is unbounded and accessible.

As I was writing this D’var Torah, I heard the very sad news that our Rabbi Emeritus Rabbi Plotkin died of a heart attack on February 3, at the age of 89. I’m preparing now to go to his funeral, and channeling my sadness and sense of loss into this writing. I am so grateful to him for his vision and enthusiasm, encouraging the leaders of the Jewish community here to build a Sanctuary, with the conviction that the Divine spirit dwells in each of us as a community, as well as finding a home in this beautiful building of which he was so proud. Our lovely prayer space was dedicated as “The Rabbi Albert and Sylvia Plotkin Sanctuary” in his honor, and will be the filled with grieving members of the wider community in the coming week to celebrate his life in a local memorial service. Rabbi Plotkin, of blessed memory, understood that we all had to build a sanctuary in our hearts to be a dwelling place for the Divine, an internal altar from which to uplift our soul.

May each one of us help create a space for community to pray together and through that effort also feel the opening of our hearts in our own personal Mishkan, Sanctuary.

-Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Albert Plotkin, z”l

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