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The blueprint that binds us
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The blueprint that binds us

Terumah | Exodus 25:1-27:19

According to the Pew Research Center, the fastest-growing religion in America, particularly among younger people, is “Unaffiliated.” This group includes atheists and agnostics, but many of its members describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These “nones” now account for more than 15 percent of the population.

In his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah introduced us to one such “none,” a young nurse named Sheila:

“I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.” Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points.

Now, “Sheilaism” is okay as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn’t go very far. It’s for and about Sheila — her feelings, her relationship to God, her spiritual practices. The Torah teaches us that much more is possible.

Terumah begins with God’s instructions to Moses to collect the materials needed to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. God says, V’asu li mikdash v’shahanti b’toham — “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The Torah says b’toham, “among them,” rather than b’toho, “within it,” to teach us that the dwelling place of God is not a building, but a people.

The hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk added another dimension. Because b’toham can mean “within them” as well as “among them,” he wrote: “This comes to teach that each person is obligated to build a sanctuary in his or her heart and the Holy Blessed One will dwell within them.”

But wait a second — isn’t this “Sheilaism,” “my own little voice”? Hardly, because the Torah provides much more than this single verse. It may be that each individual Jew builds a sanctuary in his or her heart, but we’re all following the same blueprint.

There will be differences in how we understand and observe the mitzvot; in how we perceive God, Torah, and Israel; in how our individual backgrounds and experiences lead us to interact with all things Jewish. However, since we share the same blueprint — Torah — we remain bound together as a community. Unlike “Sheilaism,” Judaism is about more than self and personal spirituality. It is our way of connecting to God, but also our way of connecting to each other.

In our parsha, the first object that Moses is told to make is the aron, the ark that will hold the tablets of the Ten Statements, and the kaporet, the ark cover, which featured two k’ruvim, the word anglicized to cherubim. The Torah says, “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above…with their faces toward each other.” Then God tells Moses that He will speak to him from between the k’ruvim.

And here is the core of the difference between religion and spirituality. The k’ruvim have their wings stretched upward to teach us to aspire to a personal connection to God, but they also face each other to teach us that God can best be found when we are part of a community.

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