October 3, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Shabbat Service on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.
At the beginning of our weekly Torah portion, in Chapter 25 of Exodus, we read that God spoke to Moses and instructed him to tell the Israelites, Vayikechu Li Terumah, take for Me a terumah, a gift from everyone whose heart is moved. The formulation has long caught the attention of commentators, including medieval commentator Rashi who favored the translation of terumah in Aramaic where it means gifts that are uniquely “set apart” for the purpose of a mitzvah.
You know the difference. Some gifts you give because it is required, and to Jewish tradition, there is absolutely nothing wrong with completing requirements. The tasks that are given priority in our culture are precisely the ones motivated by our being commanded to do them. But Rashi wants us to focus our attention on the specific set-apart gifts the Israelites might have needed to bring to the project of building a sacred place for community to gather and pray. These gifts are distinctive because they are done with one’s heart completely moved.
When I turned nine, I remember being with my friend Ivan at a birthday party in my basement. There was lots of commotion around us and many kids over for my party. Ivan and I were playing with a gift he’d just presented to me, but which I think his mom chose to buy. It was one of those little ring toss contraptions, but in water. The button you press to send the ring flying toward the peg up is moving through water. It’s not complicated. But it takes time and careful attention and a moment of peace and quiet to properly effort to press the button the right pressure, not too much, and not too little. A few moments into playing this game Ivan gave to me, my cousins Jeremy and Jenny came over and they were the last ones to come before we could go blow out the candles on my birthday cake. So hearing Jeremy’s voice at the top of the stairs, I thoughtlessly stood up, put Ivan’s gift down on the ground and said aloud, to the person who had just given me that gift, “This thing is boring. Let’s go eat cake and ice cream.”
Uh oh. My mom was entirely within earshot, looking on, mortified. Ivan didn’t mind. But let’s be clear. Ivan was my friend. He was not my mom. So between that birthday and the next I heard quite a lot from my mom about saying thank you and being thoughtful and paying attention to what I am doing and saying.
She thought she was just giving me a motherly lesson in proper birthday party etiquette. But in fact, paying attention to what I am doing, to what I am saying, and to what is happening in the present moment, is for me, as an adult, the core practice of my spiritual life. It takes effort. It is, like the bringing of a terumah to the ancient Israelites, an act of setting apart one’s energy, one’s presence and intention to what is presently happening. It is not easy to bring such an offering, and it is not just about being polite or doing what is required.
According to the commentators on our Torah, fulfilling the mitzvah around bringing gifts properly to the Mishkan was only accomplished when one aligned their practice of mitzvot with the moment in which one was experiencing. In more modern terms, we were to identify the very best of ourselves to offer to the other beings with whom we share time alive in this universe. Instead of storing away that “best portion” of our energies, we were to give those gifts to sacred endeavors, such as building community or the home in which we might experience community.
The Chasidic rebbe Simcha Bunem, quoted in Kerry Olitzky and Lawrence Kushner’s book, Sparks Beneath the Surface, teaches that “at least when you are occupied with doing commandments, you are to separate yourselves and your souls entirely for this Godly purpose. A person should not set about doing sacred business with a heart full of avarice, caught up in the material world. Rather he or she or they must purify their hearts and thoughts for what is holy. This is the meaning then of “You shall take a terumah” in our portion. You should take yourselves. “For me” refers to “for my sake, for God’s sake” in practice, but what you are bringing God is you.
In one of the most famous books of a modern author about Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Heschel applies this idea of giving your set-apart sacred holy energies to the fulfillment of Shabbat. As your rabbi, I look at you and see so many of you who have been attending Shabbat services and programs of study about Shabbat and my heart smiles. For I feel you are drawn to what we are offering in this holy place, and that our efforts are relevant to the yearnings you each have to be spiritually fulfilled.
Rabbi Heschel wrote beautifully about what it means to strive for meaning in the context of Shabbat. He wrote that the one “who wants to enter the holiness of the [Sabbath] day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”
He continued: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else…[so] the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living…And what is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the hearts? It is because the 7th day is a mine where [the] spirit’s precious metal can be found…to construct a palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine.” (Heschel, A.J. The Sabbath. Canada: Harper Collins Publishers Canada Ltd., 1979, pp.13-14, 16, 18, 28)
Listen again to what Heschel offered. He taught that the Sabbath is not an interlude… it is the climax of living. These evocative and passionate words are especially poignant to encounter because they describe the day of Shabbat itself in romantic times. They tell us that the twenty-four hours of Shabbat are luminous and captivating. And it’s not as if he made this idea up. He was echoing a long-standing idea about our kinship with Shabbat being like the relationship of two partners in a passionate love affair. The Sabbath was a day to demonstrate what our love for it means to us, by resting our body and restoring our soul. We were in love with the Sabbath day and no sooner did one Sabbath depart than we longed for the next one to arise.
I want you to take a moment with me and just dream. Imagine the size this congregation would be tonight if every person you know, who ever felt connected to our Torah or to Jewish culture came to honor Shabbat. What if anyone with even a small spark of connection to Judaism found their way to honor Shabbat in their own home tonight? It would certainly involve a lot of internal ‘set apart’ energies. It is a lot to imagine! But just for a second, can you picture it? What would such a unified Shabbat look like? Sound like? How would it feel?
The rabbis called that dream I’ve just described by the name Yom Shekulo Shabbat, a day of entire and whole Sabbath observance. According to the rabbis, if this very night was Yom Shekulo Shabbat, then the messianic age of redemption for all humankind would begin. The prophet Micah 4:4 says it will be a time when every person “will sit under their vine and beneath their fig tree and none shall make them afraid!
It’s a beautiful image. But it might be too much for you. So think of it this way. The rabbis were telling us that above and beyond all else, Yom Shekulo Shabbat is for Kulam… it is for all of us… equally…with no exceptions to partake. I can hardly imagine a future vision of Shabbat more redemptive than one in which each human being, flawed and whole, perfect and broken, all human beings diversely expressing their love and gender and beliefs and aspirations, all of us diversely celebrate life’s work and rest…equally partaking in its gifts, equally offering the best in us to beckon Yom Shekulo Shabbat into reality.
No doubt, such a hopeful vision of community can be elusive. I realize that. But I also know that I have been blessed that during my lifetime, to have found one consistent place where, particularly on the one or two Shabbatot I get there each year, I feel as though I am calling on redemption to come our way. It is a small parcel of land in Warwick, NY, our Reform Movement’s URJ Kutz Camp. My first full summer at Kutz Camp was when I was 14 and this summer will be my last because after this summer the URJ has decided to close the program. It is very hard for me to express to you exactly what it means to be part of such a precious and inspired place that has inspired me for so long.
So instead, let me tell you a story. Twenty five years ago this fall, I was in a class at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where our instructor was exploring commentaries with us on the term redemption in our tradition. He assigned us a short paper due the next Monday, and later that evening I began to write about redemption. But the story I told in the paper didn’t begin in our readings, it began in my describing my first Shabbat at Kutz Camp many, many years earlier. The redemptive memory about which I wrote, I had never told before, and it arose as my very first poem ever. It began:
The first time I understood iyun tefilah- how to pray with sincerity and for redemption.
I was fourteen.
It was my first night.
In a room of many, i was alone.
The girl, the woman behind me, Rebecca-
She sang the night with such depth.
The strength of her voice overtook me.
Then I saw Michelle- at the end of my bench- swaying to her right and left. Now she is standing and moving about, now she is dancing, dancing in abandon- moving among the others,
Eyes closed, feet bare, heart wide open.
Until this night, i never knew, i never knew this was prayer. This was redemption.
This was Shabbat.
I always thought prayer, redemption and Shabbat were keeping quiet, sitting with family, humming the melodies.
What i never understood was this could be mine.
I could lose myself in the creative
I could dance in abandon, Sing and chant these words…and what they would mean to me, no one else had to know.
I never knew You could dance the shema.
My instructor, Rabbi Richard Levy, could’ve very easily given me back my paper saying I had failed the assignment. He didn’t. Instead he wrote me a note to ask whether my poem, Dance the Shema, was something I would allow him to place into a siddur he was publishing.
I didn’t write it to be published. I wrote it because I could not contain it within me. I wrote it as an outpouring, a memory of a Shabbat community in which Jews are full-throated, embodied and in love with a Yom Shekulo Shabbat, a day that is wholly the Sabbath.
So tonight I want you to know that this is what it means to me when in our Torah portion, to Moses tells the Israelites, Vaykechu Li Terumah, take for me gifts from everyone whose heart is moved. This Shabbat or the next or the one after, I hope you will give yourselves in some way to the building of a sacred community. I hope you’ll savor our tradition’s emphasis on Shabbat. Can you do it? I believe you can.
For thirty-five years now, because of one Shabbat, I know permanently that you can dance the shema. The woman who sitting behind me, Rebecca, the girl in my poem, she is a friend and colleague of mine who serves the community of Rodeph Shalom Congregation in New York City. She is Cantor Rebecca Garfein. The guy sitting next to me at that Shabbat service, the one whom I nervously whispered to when I saw another participant arise from her seat and dance our prayers… that guy became my roommate at college…I stood up in his wedding, and at that wedding, I met my wife Joanie Berger, the one person in the world whose hands I want to be holding when Yom shekulo Shabbat, a redemptive age of sweetness and holiness, an age of fulfillment for all of us equally… when that world begins. May this be our blessing, Amen.