"... and the presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle."
My son, Noah, is a precocious young teen who - as is common among precocious young teens - ardently resists nearly everything I say. To my delight, however, he quite willingly began attending weekly 9:00am Shabbat Torah study with me a little less than a year ago. Bringing down the average age of the group by a good twenty or thirty years, he often sits quietly through the first part of the hour appearing to focus exclusively on his bagel and any other leftover Erev Shabbat goodies that he has unabashedly scrounged from the temple's kitchen. But most weeks, after about a half an hour, he looks up, raises his hand and has something to contribute. It's sometimes a pure and simple question, sometimes a remarkable insight. It's always a moment when I feel proud and grateful to be raising him around this table, among this community, and in this very special building.
There are some characters in our weekly study group. One of the most wonderful - and certainly among the most candid - is an 89 year old man named Bernie. I don't think he would describe himself as a "religious" man, but he attends Torah Study religiously. Bernie was the chair of our temple's building committee in the 1990s and each springtime, when we near the end of Exodus and study G-d's instructions to the Israelites to construct the Tabernacle, he takes the issue personally:
"People can be damn ungrateful! Even to this day - nearly 10 years since we dedicated this building - they pull me aside to kvetch and complain: 'the kitchen's too small,' 'the bathrooms are wrong.' Where were they when we were standing on this empty bit of dirt, pouring concrete, painting walls, stretching budgets that were already too skinny?"
This particular morning, as Bernie finished his annual diatribe, Noah swallowed his last bite of day-old rugalach and raised his hand just a split-second before the rest of us. Noah looked straight across the table toward Bernie and said, "I think this place is just perfect. My friends and I hang out here. We learn stuff and it's comfortable. It's kinda like a second home, I guess."
In the charged silence that followed, Bernie slowly took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. As he looked up and said, quietly, "Thank you, Noah," the rest of us returned our raised hands to our laps.
A few weeks later Noah and I were sitting in front of the TV stuffing, stamping, and sealing invitations for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. When we got to Bernie's envelope, I handed Noah a scrap of paper and said, "Wanna write a little note to Bernie?" He rather gently took my offering and scratched out a simple and just barely legible "sentence:"
dear bernie thank you for building the synagogue I grew up in noah
I resisted the urge to add capital letters and punctuation and to discuss verb tense with him... and instead slipped the note into its envelope and onto the pile headed for the mailbox.
When Bernie called our house at just before 7am two days later he said that this one simple line from this one little kid meant more to him than all the honors and plaques and congratulations and criticism he'd ever taken in. He asked me if he could publically thank Noah at our next Torah Study. I agreed because I could hear how meaningful it might be for Bernie; to recognize his new young friend, to keep this public dialogue alive; perhaps even to change forever his retelling of his role in the building of Temple Or Rishon.
Months later, on the Shabbat morning that Noah became a Bar Mitzvah, Bernie stood beside him on the bima presenting the customary gift from the congregation - a copy of the Tanach. So tight was their embrace and so broad the smiles they shared that no one in the sanctuary could hear what they said to one another. Some of us, who had witnessed the first spark of their connection at that now-long-ago Torah study, might have recalled a commentary we'd read by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
"The Divine presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart."
Regardless of what words they exchanged, it was clear in that moment that, if the Divine presence lives anywhere, it is certainly in that shared space where Noah and Bernie have come together.
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