Terumah and Pete Seeger – Bringing God into this World

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

These are the words that are etched into Pete Seeger’s banjo.  Seeger, who passed away this week, wrote and lived those words throughout his life.  Whether fighting the hate of racism, war or the destruction our natural world, Pete Seeger used his banjo and his voice to fight for justice throughout his life.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we first learn about the building of the mishkan or tabernacle.  The mishkan is seen as the predecessor to the Temple in Jerusalem – a travelling version of what will eventually be most sacred place on earth for Jews.  Mishkan, as in our prayer book, Mishkan T’fillah, comes from the Hebrew root shin-chaf-nun, meaning “to dwell.”  The mishkan is meant to be a dwelling place for God.  This made explicitly clear in Exodus 25:8, when God says, “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham – Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you.”

You all know the clichéd expression, I have learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues but I have learned the most from the students.  I have often found this to be true.  I was recently meeting with a former conversion student of mine in preparation for his wedding.   As we were talking, we delved into the subject of the meaning behind the breaking of the glass.  I explained that there are several different explanations ranging from the most historically factual – that this custom originated from non-Jewish sources and was meant to scare aware evil spirits – to more silly explanations such as this is the last time the groom ever gets to put his foot down!

Another traditional explanation is that the glass represents the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE.  Implicit in this explanation is the idea that the glass also represents the hope for the rebuilding of the Third Temple someday and a return to the sacrificial system of old when the Messiah comes.  I explained to my student, that as Reform Jews we often do not use this rationale for the glass as our movement does not believe in the idea of a Messiah, (i.e. one person) but rather a Messianic age.  Further, we do not believe in the  rebuilding of the Third Temple and a return to the sacrificial system – we believe that the destruction of the Second Temple – by no means a good thing – lead to an evolution in Judaism and ultimately positive progress.

My student then taught me something.  He said the Temple is a metaphor for God’s presence on earth.  When the Temple was destroyed, God became withdrawn from the world and our lives.  For him, the breaking of the glass was a reminder of how, throughout our lives we should all seek to put those pieces back together and rebuild the metaphorical Third Temple – rebuild the world – bring God’s presence back into our lives and seek to bring about the Messianic age.  For him, the glass was a symbol, like a banjo that, “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

We find out later on in Exodus that there is to be a chief architect appointed to oversee the construction of the mishkan, B’tzalel.  B’tzalel, the Keiran-Timberlake of his time, is described as a man who was, “imbued with the spirit of God.”   He used his God-given talents to create the mishkan – the symbol of God’s presence in this world.  Just as Pete Seeger’s machine was a banjo, B’tzalel used chisels and hammers to “surround hate and force it to surrender.”

Perhaps the most powerful part of this Torah portion, though, is the second verse I chanted this evening.  Exodus 25:2 reads, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”  As important as B’tzalel was, he could not do it alone.  As important as Pete Seeger was, he could not do it alone.  We all have a machine that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  It is up to each of us to discover what our God-given talent it, and to use it to the best of our ability to repair this world and bring about a Messianic age.  How will your, “machine surround hate and force it to surrender?”