Writing this piece is particularly timely for me. Last Friday, my congregation shared in a day of worship and solidarity with members of the local Muslim community. We prayed with them in their home in the middle of the day, and they joined us for dinner and services to welcome Shabbat. Two weeks ago, a woman named Lisa came to me to ask if it would be OK if her son came to the service. Eric is in his 30’s, uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal, but often shares his exuberance with vocalizations that can sometimes catch someone who doesn’t know Eric off guard. While I know I can’t speak for everyone, most of our congregants enjoy seeing Eric at services, and many of us still fondly remember the Shabbat over 20 years ago when Eric celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah as one of the holiest moments we had ever experienced in our sanctuary. He’s remained consistent part of our community and, just over a year ago, using facilitated communication, Eric shared a D’var Torah with us. Nevertheless, for a service when we would be welcoming many guests, Lisa was concerned that they might find Eric disruptive and she didn’t want to offend them. I reassured Lisa that this was Eric’s home and it would be great to have him attend, while at the same time I thought how sad it was that Lisa felt the need to question Eric’s place here.
In this week’s parasha, we learn of the building of the Mishkan, our portable desert sanctuary. There are specific dimensions, building materials, and color schemes. One Midrash suggests that God “projected” schematics for all the things to be created on Mt. Sinai. What’s most interesting is that all of the building materials were to come from donations, from those whose hearts were so moved (Kol asher yidvenu libo), not from a tax or assessment of any kind. The work itself was to be done by those who were Chochmai Lev, wise in their hearts. Scholars will tell us that in the Biblical world the heart was the seat of the intellect, not connected popularly as we do to love and emotion, but let’s use our contemporary definition. How do we create a world where people’s hearts are always so moved as to welcome everyone to our sanctuaries? How do we help create a change of heart in people who don’t see through differences to the humanity of others? How do we find people who are “wise in their hearts” and routinely greet each other, without reservation, greeting Eric as well as Lisa, talking to Eric, asking him questions, and telling him about themselves as he craves? How do we create these kinds of people and these kinds of sanctuaries? If we can’t achieve these, the dimensions, building materials, and color schemes just don’t matter.
Another young man, Michael, moved to our community after finishing college a few years ago. Michael has Asperger’s syndrome. He had a job, and his parents, living elsewhere, immediately made sure that Michael joined the congregation. To my dismay, and recognizing my own failure in this, we could never quite figure out how to integrate Michael into the life of the congregation. Having been through several jobs, Michael recently lost another job. Despite offering to adjust his financial obligation to the congregation, Michael chose to resign his membership. I can’t help but feel that we failed him.
Why were we told to build the Tabernacle? The Midrash suggests that it was in order for us to learn what’s truly important. The text says, “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Build me a holy place so that I (God) may well among you.” How can God dwell among us if we haven’t found a way for all the Erics and Michaels to dwell among us?
May we learn to build holy places that are truly sanctuaries for all.
Jack Paskoff is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a position he has held since 1993. He is frequently called up to speak at various community events, representing the Jewish community. Jack also is a voice in interfaith dialogue in Lancaster, and is active in various social justice efforts. For 18 years, Jack has served on the faculty of URJ Camp Harlam. He is married to Risa, the executive director of Aaron’s Acres, which serves children with special needs and their families. Jack and Risa are the parents of Ari and Gadi.