This week I want to share a story, about one of the most exquisite synagogues I’ve ever prayed in.
It was built in a day.
That day was January 5, 1991. At the Sheraton Sawridge Hotel in Fort McMurray, right at the top of Canada, materials began to arrive. It was forty below zero.
Fahrenheit or Celsius? When it’s that cold, it’s forty below no matter how you measure it. But it didn’t matter. No one was paying any attention to the weather.
Indoors, in the main ballroom, Chris-a carpenter and a dear family friend-was tearing the guts out of a portable clothes closet. This would serve as our holy ark. As we entered the ballroom, we could hear Chris’s saw buzzing as he hollowed out the core.
Under the direction of my brother, the hotel staff was hard at work positioning three hundred chairs to face eastward, towards Jerusalem.
When Chris’s wife Jody finished inflating scores of balloons, she conscripted our daughters to help her place prayer books and photocopies of the weekly Torah portion on each of the chairs.
The hotel manager was signing for three hundred kosher chicken dinners and challahs that had arrived moments earlier from the Fort McMurray Greyhound station.
Hotel staff wielded a blowtorch through the main kitchen under the supervision of our rabbi, who koshered it as hundreds of new dishes were carefully removed from boxes.
The Torah, borrowed from a synagogue three hundred miles away, stood propped on a cushioned chair, covered by my father’s tallit.
Hours later, Patte and I were wed in what is still recognized as the northern-most Orthodox Jewish wedding ever held in Canada.
Our little synagogue was built from the heart, by our friends and loved ones, and its spirituality radiated.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most glorious synagogues on earth. When I do, I often think about our little homemade shul, built to sanctify a new couple -- in a small city of 35,000 souls, six hundred miles north of the Montana border.
Everyone brought what they could to the construction of that Temple, as we worked towards one common goal.
This week’s Torah portion-Terumah (gifts/offerings) - got me thinking about that “one-day shul.”
Two weeks ago, we read of the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Israelites received the law against a backdrop of lightning and thunder.
But in this week’s Torah portion, God instructs the Israelites to “ground” these instructions, and incorporate them into their daily lives.
God instructs Moses: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) Notice that God did not want to live above the people, but rather among them.
God instructs everyone to bring their best materials-gold, silver, copper, oils, spices, yarn, dolphin skins, goat’s hair, acacia wood, precious stones.
So how did the Israelites, so recently liberated from slavery, acquire all of these materials? Our Sages offer many interpretations. Some say the Israelites were caretakers of these materials from the dawn of creation. Other claim they were “acquired” from the Egyptians as gifts or compensation as they departed Egypt.
In any case, the Torah records that this collection of materials was substantial.
So how do we reconcile this opulent display with God’s instructions to live among us? “God wanted an RV,” Dr. Diane Sharon, one of my rabbinical teachers once said, “not a moveable palace.”
The answer may be that it was not so much the physical beauty of the Holy Ark that the Torah teaches us to admire, but the love and communal effort harnessed to produce it.
Some of the most beautiful services I’ve ever attended were far from the Great Jerusalem Synagogue, or Manhattan’s Central Synagogue.
I’ve experienced untold beauty in a tiny chapel in the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv, in the company of Kurdish Jews; I’ve known untold beauty in a little bay in an industrial mall in White Rock-a small town on Canada’s Pacific coast where I performed my first services as a rabbi.
And what beauty did I experience in that little homemade sanctuary in Fort McMurray, on that January day that saw cars and houses disappear beneath frigid snowdrifts-what beauty in that place.
It was built with such love, and Patte and I were married there.
Wherever God’s children gather and combine their sparks there is love, there is excitement, there is life.
The president of the Chovevei Torah Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Lerner, tells the story of a classic Lithuanian rabbi who finds himself visiting the seminary where his son is studying. Unfortunately, however, his son cannot be found.
Ultimately the rabbi finds his son praying in the forest.
“What are you doing here?” the rabbi asks.
“I’m praying to God,” replies the son.
“Don’t you know that the same God can be found anywhere?” says the father.
His son tells him, “God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”
For some of us, God can be found in the synagogue, for others on a nature walk. For some, God can be experienced within a glorious sanctuary, for others in a tiny room with a single candle.
Either way, it is not the quality of the materials which determines the holiness of where we pray, but rather the intent with which we create sacred space for God to enter our lives.
As the Torah tells us, God’s word is not found atop some mountain, or across some great sea. It’s in front of our faces, with our friends, our families, and our communities.
The great beauty of the elaborate ark in the desert was that everyone in the community gave of themselves to build it, and they did so together.
Whether your Jewish flame revolves around social action, study, preparation of food, music, art, parenting, public prayer or private meditation, you are creating space for God to dwell.
There is more than one place for that to occur.
And perhaps it is that reality which has enabled the Jewish people to endure.
Wherever we open our hearts to this awesome, creative power, God dwells within
us and among us.
Where does God truly dwell? Eighteenth-century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk offers this: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”
Whether together or alone, each of us possesses the capacity, as this week’s Torah commands, to let God in.
Not only in Jerusalem or New York, but wherever and whenever we choose to clear space for God to dwell.
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman