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You are here: about - Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon 5769/2009

My Dream For Our New Building

Rabbi Wittenberg's Sermon on Vayakhel - Pikkudei 
Shabbat Hachodesh

I love it now; I no longer find it boring, - that long, repeated account of hooks, curtains, colours, fabrics, beams and poles which constitutes our double portion for today. I’ve realised it’s the Torah’s version of fantasy literature and I’ve fallen in love with it. Just consider: everyone’s involved; everyone’s busy, and everyone brings so many gifts that Moses actually has to call a halt to the appeal. When has that ever happened in the long history of the creation of synagogues, or cathedrals or temples for that matter? But it’s wonderful! ‘All the men who had scarlet and purple…brought it’; ‘All the women wise in heart wove’; the princes gave their precious stones and everyone was eager. The Torah virtually falls over itself to repeat that kol ish ve’isha asher nadav libbam ottam… a literal translation might be that all these men and women found that their hearts donated them to the labour and threw them into the task. What chaotic joy it all must have been!

Well, if the Torah can fantasise about its dream house for God, so can we. After all, here in our community we’ve done almost as well, though we’re still just a little distance away from calling off our appeal. But we’re almost there and we’re about to start building. So here is my spiritual dream house. Don’t take it too seriously; it’s only ten days since Purim. But actually, I mean every word I say.

There’ll be donkeys. Yes, there’s room in our new plans for a small stables round the back with a couple of donkeys, and maybe a biblical goat and some chickens too so that we can produce our own organic free range eggs. A rota of eager children (organised by Barbara Stern) will clean them out and play with them every day. We’ll have a shul allotment (this is serious and about to happen, but we need someone who’ll give it their passion) to grow apples for Rosh Hashanah, bitter herbs and parsley for Pesach and maybe figs for Shavuot. We’ll bake and sell our own challot and the profit will go to provide school dinners in the third world. A dozen different projects will link us to God’s world; our very Judaism will be organic and smell of hay and the earth’s fresh herbs.

There’ll be people too, including the people so often forgotten, left out or excluded by neglect. ‘Not Dead Yet’ is the excellent title Julia Neuburger chose for her marvellous and important book about ageing. She sets out her bullet points on the back cover: ‘Don’t waste my skills and experience’; ‘Don’t trap me at home’; ‘Don’t make me brain dead, let me grow’; ‘Don’t assume I’m not enjoying life’. In our new shul, and this above all is truly no fantasy, we’ll have proper access for all. We’ll work with Jewish Care and with the University of the Third Age (we’ve already begun, thanks especially to Barbara Anders!); Grandparents and great grandparents will study with their grand- and great grand children and we’ll be a non-ageist community of wisdom and joy. There’ll be a water bowl for guide dogs (and Mitzpah) and state of the art aids to include people with disabilities.

There’ll be children and young people, including, or rather especially, those we mention at the Seder (of which we have our first preview today when we read the instructions Moses issued to our people anxious with the urgency of the coming exodus). The child ‘who doesn’t know how to ask’ will be there, for he, or she, is the intimidated child (or adult), the child (or adult) who never had the opportunity to ask. At petach lo, ‘you make an opening for them’ says the Haggadah. Our community will have many entrance ways for them, because nobody will be humiliated for what they never had a proper chance to learn, or pounced upon with excessive expectations, but encouraged and inspired so that the beautiful world of Jewish life and learning opens out before them like a valley full of daffodils in the sunshine of March.

The ‘wicked’ child will be there too; there’s energy in his anger and there’s often good cause for it too. No, our dream community will not be so pious that we cannot say why history may have left us angered by our often outcast status, frustrated with God and full of disbelief for God’s constant failure to bring redemption and salvation (was Woody Allen being generous when he quipped that the best one can say about God is that he’s an under achiever?), frustrated with a Judaism so often represented in a narrow, bigoted, exclusive and excluding manner, frustrated and almost despairing about Israel trapped between what is done to it by those who hate it and what it in turn has sometimes done. These issues will not be banished from the camp; we’ll make it possible to talk about them; we’ll continue to create a Judaism which is honest, serious, open, committed and impassioned.

Yes, we’ll talk; no doubt we won’t be able to avoid the widespread Jewish custom of talking inside the service, outside the service and throughout the service. But, seriously, we’ll bring words to the certainties, and uncertainties, of our hearts and souls, because our community will be a place of trust where we can weep and find comfort, speak and be heard. We’ll talk about love of the mitzvoth, the commandments, with chapped hands from scrubbing down the kitchen for Pesach and tying laurel branches into the roofs of our Succot. We’ll talk about God, the kind of God we don’t believe in and the kind of God we, just possibly, do; we’ll discuss the interventionist God of the Bible, the God whom the mystics expend endless images telling us we cannot describe, and the God of the poets who speaks in our conscience and our hearts. We’ll have a space of silence where we can just listen to God, and not speak at all.

If it were up to me, our fantasy community would not have a wall all around it, (especially not a beautiful, grade 2 listed, ridiculously expensive wall). We’d do as Holy Blossom Temple have done in Toronto and once a week open our synagogue to the needy and the homeless and feed them and look after them. There, one day a destitute man came in filthy rags. After taking his meal he approached the piano, and before anyone could tell him that maybe he should better leave it alone, he sat down and played Chopin majestically for half an hour, before leaving without a word. In our dream community we would always know how to honour such gifts; we would despise nobody’s contribution. Wouldn’t it be dreadful if it emerged that someone had said, in the language of the Torah: ‘My heart prompted me, but when I went to make my offering they prevented or ignored me’.

We’ll have music, several klezmer bands with players of all ages, a children’s choir, a youth choir and our already wonderful choir, poetry, painting classes and exhibitions. We have to create a place of beauty, a retreat which welcomes refugees from the anguish of the rest of their lives by signifying grace and calm and welcome. But the greatest beauty has to be the way we welcome one another.

God will be there too. ‘And the cloud covered the tent of meeting’ says the Torah at the end of all those dozens of verses about building, weaving, tying and fixing. Sometimes, for us, this will be the cloud of chaos as we struggle, and fail, to do all we want; as we double book, or fail to book, our events, or advertise the same meeting at three different times. Sometimes in the cloud of uncertainty we will walk pass one another, instead of encountering and welcoming each other. Sometimes we will feel as if we had lost our way. All these things are inevitable! 

But sometimes, the cloud will represent the mystery of God’s presence, filling the tent, calling to us, embracing us, inspiring us. And then we will know that we have glimpsed the glory of God which fills the spaces where we and our dreams can meet: uchevod Hashem malei et hamishkan.