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Derasha Parshat Terumah

02/19/2024 12:00:00 AM


R' Perry Tirschwell

Whether you’re a child of the 1980 and 90’s and you remember Lifestyles of The Rich & Famous with Robin Leach, or a child of the 2000’s and you remember MTV’s “Cribs”, or a child of the 60’s and 70’s and you remember the celebrity home maps of Beverly Hills, there has always been a fascination with the lavish homes of famous people.

If you would have asked me -- “Rabbi -- Is this a Jewish concept?,” I would have resoundly said “no.” I believe that we have many concerns with this
phenomenon -- 

1) The adulation of luxury -- is that what is most important to us?

2) This leads to keeping up with the Joneses -- putting undue pressure on people to spend beyond their means, putting stress on them, their marriages and families

3) In turn, this pressure inspires some people to cut corners in their financial dealings with others and the government to keep up appearances and maintain their high standard of living

G-d created us as mortal beings with material desires. Every human is faced with the dilemmas of do I live below or above my means, how much to save and how much to spend, how lavish are my vacations. Most Americans fail at this test.

However, my question for this morning is: This week we began a five-week journey of parshiot about the construction of the mishkan, the traveling place of worship utilized throughout the Jews 40 years in the desert. We read about the pure gold, the finest textiles and most precious stones that were the materials the mishkan was built from. How do we understand this? Not only does have echoes of Lifestyles of the rich and Famous, but it seems incongruous with other ways we encounter Hashem;

A) At SPHDS, i have every first grader taught that G-d came down and gave the Torah was given on Har Sinai because it was the humblest of mountains, where the Torah was given to the humblest man to ever walk the face of the earth? Didn’t G-d appear there originally in a bush -- not a towering redwood?

B) Wasn’t the Egel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, the antithesis of our concept of G-d? The Torah tells us "Elokai Zahav vKefef lo taasun iti" --don’t create gods of gold and silver with me

C) Doesn’t the Kohein Gadol, high priest, wear Bigdei Lavan, simple white linen clothes when he goes into the Holy of Holies? Isn’t this one of the reasons behind our custom to wear white on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur?

We look askance at religious functionaries that wear ruby shoes and live in palaces. How do we understand the lavish mishkan?

Inspired by our current president and first lady (pause) Abe Bassan and Joyce Abadi, my wife and I spent winter break in Panama (which,parenthetically, is a very affordable vacation!). The Panama community is truly sui generis. 17-18K Jews (which is Jewish population of a few blocks in Boca Raton) support 40 kosher establishments, including reportedly the world’s largest kosher supermarket. How? Because 85-90% keep kosher.  And there are equally impressive stats about shul attendance, day school enrollment, and mikvah use. What is their secret?

Everyone gives the credit to Rabbi Tzion Levy, the first Chief Rabbi of Panama, who served in the position for 57 years. He played such a pivotal role in shaping that community that the shul with daily minyanim at 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 7:30..9:30 is named Ahavat Tzion- is both a reference to Panamanian Jews’ hearts being in the east and their community’s enormous respect for their rabbi, Zichrono L’vracha.

One of the lessons that Rabbi Tzion told the community when they built their first shul, Shevet Achim, is that it must be more beautiful than anyhome, and it remains you or places like Versailles- there’s gold everywhere. All synagogues in Panama live up to the same high standard.

I suggest to you that the answer to our question about the lavishness of the mishkan is that there’s no contradiction between beautifying a home for Hashem while personally living more modestly.  Though the cars, clothing, vacations, and of course homes of others may consciously or subconsciously influence our purchases for ourselves, this is not the reaction that we have when we see a beautiful synagogue.

One of the things I like about Northern California is that you can’t tell from the front of most homes how big they are. You can’t tell how much money people have by the way they dress- jeans and a tshirt with a picture of an animal on it - you can’t tell if the person is the CEO or someone low on the org chart. I have a custom of going to the homes of each of the school’s major donors before the High Holidays. I am truly inspired by the Tzniut in which they live compared to the size of the significant gifts theymake to Jewish institutions like SPHDS.

However, our places of worship must be beautiful. Not because G-d needs it -- lowly mountains like Har Sinai and simple white clothes are enough for Him. However, we need it. We don’t want children and ourselves to view Judaism as cheap- to look elsewhere for beauty. We don’t want their eyes to bug out when they see the houses of worship of other religions, or the Homes of the Rich and Famous.

The Ribbono shel Olam’s “Crib” has to be truly the pinnacle of beauty, but the highest level of religious experience occurs when we wear white.  The Aron might be covered in gold, but we understand that its “bones” are Shittim wood, which the Chassidim say comes from the word “Shtut”/”Shtus”- or folly or unimportant.

May we be successful in beautifying our communal institutions while living modestly in our personal lives. May we be successful in raising children and grandchildren who are modest in their lifestyle and personality, but selflessly dedicating themselves to the community and the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom

Sun, April 14 2024 6 Nisan 5784