The finer details of community building

13 Mar

For math aficionados, this weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. March 14, known as Pi Day. To remind those of us who haven’t been in high school geometry for a while, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is approximately 3.14, but this is only an approximation. We actually don’t know the exact ratio, though mathematicians have expanded the decimal to hundreds more digits. As we were beginning the Shacharit service today on 3/14/15 at 9:26 and 53 seconds, we experienced Pi Day to the fullest extent possible for the next 100 years. I didn’t want that moment to go unnoticed.

Our Torah today reading focuses much attention on precision in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week we conclude the public reading of the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot (Exodus) and read the two parashiyot known as Vayakhel and Pekudei. These readings follow last week’s reading of the Golden Calf episode, while today’s reading deals nearly exclusively with the construction of the tabernacle and furnishings that our people carried with them in the desert period. It is clear that after the powerful experience of the Divine Presence at Sinai, followed later by construction of the Golden Calf, the people need some tangible, physical reminder of God’s presence. The Torah describes in extensive detail the measurements of the Mishkan, because a house of God must be made just right. Years later, the Tabernacle would be replaced by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and following its destruction, the synagogue became our spiritual home. In every community, we attempt to make our place of worship a fitting beautiful place that we feel suits God’s presence. At the same time, we are reminded in this same portion that with all of the exactitude of construction, the key purpose of the Mishkan or the modern synagogue is as a place of sacred convocation. God is not present unless people are present creating community with one another.

The Torah reading opens Vayak’hel Moshe et KOL adat b’nai Yisrael. Moses gathered KOL, the entire community of Israel. In classical rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, every word is full of meaning. So many commentators naturally ask why the text adds the modifier kol, for all. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that this is to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai. Other commentators explain that the simple word kol was to be a constant reminder that our definition of community must include all our members. To be loyal to our calling, the community must include the younger and older; weak and the strong; men and women and children. Every individual, whatever his/her station in life, has a special place in the life of the community. Every person matters (Thanks to Rabbi Melvin Sirner for this spark).

Every day we are bombarded by difficult news stories that might be boiled down to individuals or segments of society forgetting the basic premise that every person matters. I don’t think any of us has to think too hard to think of examples disrespect, discrimination and hatred that exist in our country and around the world. Once in a while, it’s nice to hear good news about people standing up and doing the right thing for others, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable members of society.

This week, there was one such story in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Lincoln Middle School was hosting a basketball game. One of the school’s cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, a student with Downs Syndrome, was being heckled by fans in the bleachers. This is horrible and disheartening. And then something remarkable happened. Three eighth graders on the team, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien and Chase Vazquez, stopped the game, went up into the stands, and told the hecklers to knock it off. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for these students, for their parents, for the school and for Desiree. The school renamed the gymnasium “D’s House,” and the Kenosha City Council is honoring the three players for standing up for Desiree.

The story has spread widely on the Internet and social media. One quotation in a news article stood out for me. One of the three boys, Scooter Terrien, said: “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong because we’re all the same. We’re all created the same. God made us the same way.”
This should not seem remarkable to us—it should be what we consider normal. And yet, for three 14-year-old boys to stop a basketball game to stand up to a heartless, cowardly bully, it gives hope to all of who wish to see our communal homes cultivate and nurture our most precious values. Clearly Lincoln Middle School gets an ‘A’ for creating an atmosphere in which these three basketball players developed values of caring and concern. Their families and broader community that helped raise these boys also deserve credit for raising boys who understand that every person matters.

These three boys at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha are an inspiration to us here who care about creating a vibrant and caring synagogue community where every person matters.

On this Pi Day, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and its contents. However, our Torah portion comes to remind us in the very first verse the ultimate purpose of a community, particularly a sacred community. Just as Moses recognized the value of each and every individual, we must do the same. May God grant us the strength to remember that every person matters, that our words and our actions will reflect this core value and that younger generations will look to us as models to emulate.

Amen.

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