Parashat Terumah: On Cemeteries as Sacred Space

In the last week, vandals (translation: thugs and probably anti-Semites) desecrated two Jewish cemeteries. The first took place in France, where 300 tombstones were uprooted in the Alsace region not far from Germany. The second took place in Germany itself, where a Jewish cemetery in Oldenburg, which has been attacked a number of times, once again suffered from anti-Semitic vandalism.

There is a truth that, if anti-Semites are going to act out, better it should be against cemetery properties than against those who are living.

But, then again, cemeteries have always played an important role in Jewish life. The Book of Genesis makes clear that Abraham intentionally purchased the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron as a family burial site rather than accept it for free, creating an undisputed final resting place for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah as well as, according to the midrash, Adam and Eve.

For the next several thousand years, whenever Jews expanded into new communities, cemeteries (or at least the chevra kadisha burial societies) were among the first institutions established.

As we know, one need not visit a cemetery to speak to a loved one that has entered the spirit world. One need not visit a cemetery to pray to God on behalf of that loved one or to recall special memories.

Yet cemeteries are sacred space – and indeed, the land itself is even consecrated as holy. This sacred space helps us to feel connected with those whom we have lost. It inspires us to pray to God on their behalf. The sacred space that is the cemetery helps us to create opportunities for memory, for tears, and for joyful recollections.

At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we are blessed to have what I consider among the most beautiful cemeteries in the world: Clover Hill Park. But no matter how beautiful or well-kept a cemetery happens to be, there is something special about a dedicated space for memorializing our loved ones.

In our Torah portion this week, Terumah, we encounter God’s commandment to Moses for the Israelites to construct the Tabernacle: a portable, designated space in which the Israelites could more deeply feel God’s presence. “Make for Me a Sanctuary,” God explains, “that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 26:8).

The Wilderness Tabernacle led to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, and the Holy Temple led to synagogues of diaspora life. Though we can feel God’s presence anywhere, it helps when we have a designated space in which to experience the sacred. This is true of cemeteries as well.

When vandals — whether acting out of anti-Semitism or not – attack our cemeteries, they attack at the heart of the Jewish People. They violate our Jewish homes. In the last twelve months, we certainly have experienced an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. These two cemetery attacks are added to a long and growing list.

In this week of Parashat Terumah, when we contemplate the meaning and importance of sacred space, let us give thanks for all who work to keep our sacred spaces strong, beautiful, and holy: for us and for our children. And let us pray that the growing violence in the world should stay, in the immortal words of Fiddler on the Roof, far away from us!

Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you a peaceful and blessed Sabbath.

-Rabbi Aaron Starr 

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