A Place of Giving

What is a sacred dwelling place, a place for the Divine, and how is it made?

“King Solomon made himself a palanquin of the timbers of the Levanon – he made its pillars of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple, its inward part inlaid in love by the daughters of Jerusalem.” (Song of Songs 3:9-10) That’s a grand place, to be sure, but is it a sacred one – and what is the factor that would make it so?

I often reflect on the fact that everything that goes in to making Harvard Hillel, our Jewish center at Harvard University, is freely given. I do not mean only that our entire budget is made of gifts – which is true, and deeply inspiring to remember – but also that our entire community is voluntarily made.

True, some participants, and not only the traditionally devout, may say that they are somehow obliged to be here – and far be it from me to discount the centrality of duty in the Jewish heritage. But this is, by far, not a place into which people trudge grudgingly, and the truth is that every one of the hundreds of students and community members who come here to be with one another could be somewhere else. Instead, their hearts move them to be here, and you can see it in their faces. This is a place of delight.

I think of this especially in this week when we read in our Torah of how the tabernacle at the center of our ancestors’ encampment is made: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the children of Israel that they gather for me a freewill offering, of every one who is moved by heart to give shall you take My offering. And this is the offering which you shall receive from them: gold, and silver, and brass, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, and rams’ skins dyed red, and exotic skins, and acacia wood, oil for light, spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense, precious stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastplate – and they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst.” (Exodus 25:1-8)

King Solomon, as we also read this week, later builds a great Temple in Jerusalem; but although the scale is more grand, and the following may seem sacrilegious to say, the account of conscript labor – huge levies of the people, ten thousand each month, shipped up and down the coast of neighboring Lebanon and Phoenicia to hew and bring back timber for the House – is rather less inspiring.

King Solomon in the Song of Songs, as a focal point of adoration (so much so as to be taken as a stand-in for the Divine in the book’s interpretive tradition), is perhaps more spiritually moving. It is, after all, a book of love. On the other hand, the biblical love-poetry openly scorns the notion that love might be compelled or purchased – “Were a man to give the whole fortune of his house for love, he would be mocked to shame” (Song of Songs 7:7) – and one of my favorite moments of the Song of Songs, very much in the free spirit of love, pokes poetic fun at the king with his harem (vineyards, in the book’s poetic lexicon, serving as metaphors for feminine sexuality): “Solomon had a vineyard in Ba’al Hamon [NB: a place-name that means, literally, ‘Master of Plenty’], he gave the vineyard over to keepers – a man might bring for its fruit a thousand silver pieces. My own vineyard is before me – do you have a thousand, Solomon, and two hundred for the keepers of its fruit?”

If you put a price on love, the Song of Songs seems to say, pretty soon you have a commodity in hand that is anything but. My love is my own to nurture and to give, the female voice of the Song of Songs avows, be she no more than a shepherdess; do you think you can afford me, Solomon, o wealthiest king of kings?

Can’t buy me love – it’s an old song and a good one. On the other hand, boy can you build a world out of love – as, perhaps, enduringly, out of nothing else. “For I have said the world is built by love,” says a Psalm associated with Ethan the Ezrahite, a name famed elsewhere in the Bible as a point of comparison for Solomon’s wisdom (Psalm 89:3; 1Kings 5:11 [4:13 in KJV]).

In a rabbinic retelling of the story, Moses wonders aloud to God whether the Israelites will be capable of building the Tabernacle. Not only that, answers the Divine, but each and every Israelite will discover the ability to take part in making it – as it is written, “Of everyone who is moved by heart to give shall you take My offering.” Miraculously, everyone who is inclined to help create the sacred dwelling place will find the capacity to do so. (Exodus Rabbah 33:8)

It is a great blessing and a humbling joy to inhabit a community built so thoroughly of freewill offerings. Duties and responsibilities lend security and shape to a society, vitally; but if one searches for the innermost sanctuary, in which abides the Divine, one finds it, I believe, in the generous inclination of the heart to take part in making such a venue. God is in the giving – in the sense that if one wishes to play host to the Divine, one must offer a place of dwelling from within oneself. It may be that even the Almighty can only legitimately claim a place in this world if it is willingly given.

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