Terumah and the Age of Rage

Terumah – it is a parsha about gifts. It is a parsha named “gifts.” Terumah is a collective noun: this parsha is about the collective.

Speak to the Israelite people, YHVH tells Moses. Offer everyone whose heart is moved to generosity, to thankfulness the sweet opportunity to bring something of themselves to the Holy One. And the people respond, with gifts of gold and silver and copper, with gifts of blue, purple, and crimson yards, with tanned ram skins and acacia wood, with oil for lighting, spices for anointing and burning incense, with lapus lazuli for the ephod and the breast piece, with the means to build a sanctuary.

It is a parsha filled with magical objects, with golden cheruvim who will spread out their wings and shield the ark in their care. With a lampstand adorned with metal petals curling about its seven branches and cups fashioned in the form of almond blossoms. The tabernacle itself will be made of fine twisted linen, of deep shades of purple and blue and wine-red, held together with gold clasps.

It is a parsha of abundance, a parsha, Chassidic tradition tells us, which contains the heart and substance of the Torah in its second verse. These are tzedakah and good deeds. The point of all our texts is reduced to this commandment: Give of yourself. Do good things. Gold and silver, as Torat Moshe tells us, may belong to God, but the pure willingness of heart is ours to give.

Just a few verses later, God says, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The preposition at work here is bet. While that can certainly be translated to “among,” bet also means “with” or “in.” The Holy One, it appears, is suggesting that humanity build a sanctuary so God can live in them. Not in an edifice. Not in a structure, however beautiful, but in human hearts: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them.”

If only.

It has been another week in the maelstrom of rage. We are living in such an age. It is infecting every aspect of our lives. It begins with a self-righteousness that is permeating every single social and news media platform. It ends with dismissing every compromise, with murdering others by word and deed.

The Dreamers have been crushed – again. Children have been slaughtered in their schools – again. Blame has been cast, again.

So many of us are feeling overwhelmed – even bullied – by the ceaseless, unending vitriol. We read Terumah and long for human hearts to be sanctuaries of peace. Our hearts are bruised and battered. We are exhausted. For every day, in every way, we are bombarded by the rage that so many Americans seem to hold dear – as if it were their most precious possession. Can this be our country, our world?

How can we make a sanctuary for God when we choose to fill our hearts with resentment and anger? How can rage be the bedrock for anything holy? No sanctuary can be built on such a foundation.

We know that rage is generated by fear. The essential question is this: What are we afraid of?

Note: This parsha was read the week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born. This blog post was inspired by her efforts to understand and speak with those who have harmed and hurt her and the people she tries to protect. It is dedicated to her.


We Would Repay You Tenfold – Answering America’s Dreamers (DACA)

Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you.
Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Yesterday I listened to an hour-long documentary about the long battle to get the United States to begin opening its doors to the Dreamers, young people brought to this country as children.

I cried through the entire broadcast.

I cried because the story is familiar, known, somehow visceral. It is all those things because I am a Jew.

It’s not as though we Jews do not know what it is to live in fear of expulsion. It’s not as if we Jews don’t know what it is to live on the edge of legality, without protection of kings, dukes, or modern states. It’s not as if we Jews did not carry centuries’ worth of living at the margins, in the darkness, in fear. We will be sent out, we will be thrust into danger, hunger, even death.

I do not exaggerate. Some 800,000 young people may very well be shunted back into just such a world. The government has all their information, can find them easily enough, can deport them and their families – and not infrequently to places where their lives are at risk. So much for Trump’s promises to go after all those “bad hombres” and leave these young people alone. So much for his claim that Dreamers were “incredible kids.” There are more important concerns for a man who pardoned Joe Arpaio; they are embodied by those who are still screaming “lock her up.”

And, let’s face it: Trump hardly invented anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant policies, or anti-immigrant vitriol. It is the Republican Party and Republican senators who are threatening to sue the government unless DACA is eradicated.

Remember that chant the neo-Nazis shouted through the streets of Charlottesville – “Jews will not replace us”? During the documentary, I listened to one Trump supporter express exactly the same vitriol against Dreamers, whom she blithely accused of stealing opportunities and their jobs from American kids who had the luxury to be born to citizens.

But we don’t get to choose who we are born to or how our parents make their decisions. And a goodly number of the parents of Dreamers made exactly the same decision this woman would make if her ability to feed her child was threatened: Find a way to feed the child, no matter what it took. Go where food is, where there is more safety, more opportunity. Even if it means accepting danger, it is less danger than having your child go hungry, be at risk of gang violence, have a life so tenuous it is no life.

Our biblical forefathers and foremothers, too, left their homeland for foreign countries so they could feed their children.

It is a bitter pill. One government invites these young people to come out of the shadows. We will not deport you, we said. You can work here, you can get an education here, you can start a business and pay your taxes.

And they did.

There is no economic case to be made to deport immigrants – there is a clear economic case to be made to giving them a path to citizenship. I could spend all this space citing statistics showing how important it will be for an aging population to have and to retain immigrants (and to offer them citizenship, too). I could point out that numerous reports demonstrate that our annual GDP would actually take a serious hit if we deported the immigrant population.  We could demonstrate the purchasing power of immigrants in a capitalist society, point out the businesses and jobs created by immigrants who are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as the native born, discuss the way any costs of immigration get more than paid back in the second generation. The Dreamers’ generation.

I am thinking of students of mine who are Dreamers, who have been paying their way through college, working one night shift after another to get their out-of-state tuition paid for, struggling to make a way for themselves in a world that refuses to admit to their existence.

I keep remembering the words of one teenage Dreamer who said: “If you would only give us a chance, we would repay you tenfold.”

Have not we Jews known what it is to ask for chances? Should not the entire Jewish community be up in arms, calling senators and representatives, asking that we give these young people the chances they work hard for and the chances they deserve?

Should we Jews not know our own texts, our own mandates? Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you. Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

We ignore our God-given Torah at our own peril. Those Dreamers are us.