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Parashat Terumah

February 24, 2010

By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

The Gifts of Our Hearts

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him… let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:1-2, 8)

Specific details for building the mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert follow. The sanctuary the Israelites are to make is physical, built from “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood…” But it is built so that “I (G!d) may dwell” – v’shakhanti, which has the same Hebrew root as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence – “among them.”

“That I may dwell among them.”

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that it says “among them” and not “in its midst” to teach that every person must build the Sanctuary in their own heart; then God will dwell among them. We do not need colorful yarns or exotic animals’ skins to build a sanctuary in our hearts. Rather, we need to open our hearts, to learn who we are and become more confident and secure with the individual we were born to be and have grown to be through our life experiences, and the more we do this, the greater the opening, the space – Hamakom – within us, within which the Holy One of Blessing can dwell.

Recently, I walked beside my mother on a journey through psychological crisis and healing, a journey that opened both our hearts to a closer and more intimate relationship, a journey that deepened my respect for my mother, who spent the years of my youth and early adulthood struggling with mental illness. Working hard, she stabilized and went on to produce amazing works of art, teach and build a dedicated and loving community of students and friends, support others experiencing and healing from mental illness, write a moving memoir of her unusual life, and – perhaps most importantly – build friendships with her three children.

In the beginning of her recent crisis, my mother was acting “crazy.” She worried about the FBI coming, wanted to get friends and family into the witness protection program so they could be safe, and experienced other delusions. The night before I got her to the safety of a geriatric psychiatric unit was one I will never forget. I awoke in the darkness of the night to seeing her in a state of intense agitation. She clearly had not slept, and her despair and distress were palpable. She was terrified. That night, my heart opened wider than ever to let in the Holy One of Blessing. While all was quiet around us, I lay beside my mother, and her cat. I kept her company, sang, comforted her, and brought her snacks. I was aware that I was totally calm. I felt none of the anxiety I had felt the previous day. Instead I felt love pouring forth from me, and I understood that the feeling I had carried all my life of not being able to help my mother – no matter how good I tried to be at age seven – was washing away, for this time I could help her. The sense of shame I had felt as a child was being replaced by deep love, respect, and admiration, and empathy for the intense emotional pain in which my mother found herself. I remembered how hard she had worked during her long life to be able to function – not only to function, but to constantly educate herself, grow emotionally and spiritually, and be there for others.

On that dark night in December, I gave to my mother freely from my heart, but I received so much in return. I received a gift of healing and during the rest of her journey through psychosis and anxiety, I received the gift of accepting her more deeply and coming closer to her. I came away determined to find a way to speak of my mother’s mental illness, and of the trials and tribulations of all the patients, family members, students, friends, acquaintances, and strangers whom I see or meet or care for, in a way that shows dignity, respect, patience and love. My mother is an amazing and unusual person, incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, and all of that didn’t go away just because she was imagining things.

And so it is with every person we meet. We are all “sacred texts.” We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G!d. We all carry within us a spark of the Divine. All of us. Every single one of us. We bear a responsibility to find the sacredness in each other, no matter how the other person may look, act, or speak. The more we do so, the more we create spaces into which the Divine can quietly slip in the darkness of the night, to be with us, and to bring us gifts of healing.

In the desert, the Israelites brought gifts from their hearts. Only by so doing could they in return receive the gifts that would come from having the Divine Presence dwelling among them. And so it is with us today, as well.

Note: I tell of my experience with my mother with her consent and appreciation.


Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, AJR ’05, is a Board Certified Chaplain through the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and is a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, a community literally without walls that holds services in nature throughout the year.