The Torah portion for this week, Terumah (Gift-offering), from Exodus 25 discusses the building of the first sanctuary of the Jewish people, a tent like structure, built, dissembled, carried and built again, numerous times during the Hebrews forty years in the desert. Its plan and utensils became the basis for both Temples in Jerusalem and ultimately for the synagogue itself and by extension, the church and the mosque. This original sanctuary in the desert was in effect the spiritual cradle of western civilization.
One verse in particular sticks out for me, “Build Me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) In fact, forty years ago I preached my Senior Sermon at rabbinic school on it and even won a prize. But today this verse took on a new and deeper meaning for me. In short, given the complexities, dangers and uncertainties of life, we all need a place or places of sanctuary. This week KI was a sanctuary in a sea of uncertainty and loss.
On Monday morning, February 24, a ten-year veteran of our Preschool School had a heart attack early in the morning. Despite the valiant attempts of a doctor on the scene and the EMS squad who transported her to the hospital, Berrie Fligelman, did not survive. Berrie was a wife, mother, sister and grandmother. She loved life and she loved kids, our kids and our staff. She was deeply beloved by her colleagues who managed to stay focused on their work and gave their kids a good stay at school despite their own terrible grief. As word spread, the parents of the Preschool responded with words of support, food, offers to substitute, and endless acts of kindness. Our preschool community transformed itself into a sanctuary of love in the howling desert of life and death. Astonishingly, in the midst of all the sorrow, a second teacher learned her own aged father-in-law passed away. The more the sorrow, the greater the love.
The next day on Tuesday, a group of us went to Calvary Presbyterian Church in Willow Grove to the funeral of Ken Cooter, husband of our long-term KI bookkeeper, Carol Cooter. Ken was a familiar face at the synagogue as he often served as our security guard during Bnai Mitzvah and other celebrations. He was a quiet, congenial man who loved riding motor cycles with his friends and reading huge books on a wide range of topics. He died after a brief encounter with cancer, which robbed him of his life with his wife, children and grandchildren. Again, the more sorrow, the greater the love which filled our hallways and heart ways.
At present, our 30-day memorial list is longer than ever: (Jerry S. New, Ilse Lindemeyer, Carol J. Bernhard, Harold Horn, Shirley Tracton, Rosalind Geisenberger, Jay Karfunkle, Edward Marks, Kenneth Golden, Marian Sherman, Berrie Fligelman, Martin Duretz) It includes the names of many beloved members of our congregation and their families. It constantly changes. We try our best to always respond with love.
The Torah says to build a sanctuary so that the presence of God can dwell among us. Theologians have long debated the exact meaning of the “presence of God.” This week I learned that the presence of God is most readily apprehended in the loving, selfless, compassionate responses we offer one another at the hardest moments in our lives. This week our congregation was called upon to be a sanctuary of love. It was a time of darkness, grief and existential pain. It was also a time of love and compassion. The dangers, the hurts, the losses of life will always be lurking just around the corner. It is up to us, as the Torah says this week, “to have willing hearts” to respond with love.
It was a dark week for many of us at KI. For some of us, it was absolutely crushing. But we made our synagogue a Sanctuary of love and found some comfort in one another’s embrace.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.