Parashat Terumah: Protecting Our Holy Places
As Israeli soldiers jubilantly entered the Old City during the Six Day War, one soldier recorded the historic sequence of events. With great emotion, he narrated the march through Lion’s Gate; enroute to the Western Wall. Despite all the emotion, sense of elation and ongoing confrontation with Arab soldiers still shooting; he described-emphatically- how the Israeli soldiers will avoid harming any of the holy places. He was clearly referring not only to the Western Wall, but to the Muslim holy sites: The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In the heat of battle, an Israeli soldier had the presence of mind to not only record precious history but to reassure posterity that Israeli soldiers respected the sacred sites of everyone. He reminded us how a holy place to one religion must be recognized as a holy site to everyone. One does not have to embrace Islam (or Christianity or Hinduism, for that matter) to acknowledge and to respect its sacred places. An attack against a faith’s holy site is an affront to all faiths. God’s spiritual presence resides in every sanctuary where people come to pray, study, socialize and contemplate in the spirit of humility and contrition. Ditto for faith-based community centers and cemeteries…
Over the past month, such respect has not extended to Jewish synagogues, community centers and cemeteries; which have been besieged by unanticipated threats, swastikas and vandalism. As many Jews and Jewish organizations are challenging potential immigration restrictions against Muslims and others, who now will stand up for us?
For the present at least, the answer includes the Muslim communities of America. For example, Muslims have stepped forward to assist in the repair of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. The Muslim community on Long Island has also responded to the recent attacks against Jewish holy places.. This week I received a letter from the Islamic Center of Long Island. The letter included a reassuring message:
We, the members of Islamic Center of Long Island, are deeply saddened and concerned to hear of the latest reports of violence towards Jewish Community Centers and synagogues. We would like to offer our help at this time and perhaps stand guard outside your temple (sic) during prayer times. Please let us know how we can help and if this is something you need.
At least for the column today, my focus is not on our more long term Jewish-Arab concerns; such as the persistent Muslim support for terrorism against Israel; or our fear that with changing U.S demographics, Congress of the future will gradually support more anti-Israel measures. In confronting anti-Semitic threats today, many Arab communities have stepped forward to lend their support. Threatening or desecrating the holy places of one faith is an affront to all faiths…
This week’s Torah portion of Terumah details the contributions (Terumah means contribution) volunteered by the people in order to construct their Mishkan/ portable sanctuary. Terumah’s focus is not only on the Mishkan’s details, but on the materials lovingly brought by all Israelites for its construction and beautification. Individual contributions were impressive; the best illustration of how a makom kadosh (a holy place) is so central to the physical and spiritual life of any faith.
On a more global scale, the themes in Terumah teach an invaluable lesson about the centrality of holy places in all religions. The contributions we make cannot be limited exclusively to materials; our contributions also need to be in the form of a sacred commitment to supporting and defending our holy places when they are besieged by people threatening hatred and violence. One Jewish contribution to the world is that we respect and honor the sanctuaries of other religions. This past week, the Muslim community offered its contribution to the Jews of America, by condemning anti-Semitism through word and action. Terumahtherefore, takes on added meaning; the Muslim condemnations of anti-Semitism represent a vital contribution in our battle to eliminate religious discrimination wherever it exists.