“We don’t create stuff [sic]. We don’t build anything.” This explanation comes early in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, as stock trader Matthew McConaughey explains the business to the new hire played by Leonardo DiCaprio. With that bit of instruction, we are invited to explore the debauchery of those who neither create nor build.
Are you disturbed by the hollowness of wealth generated without the value of building or creating anything of substance? Where might your sense of this depravity and vanity originate? Perhaps our unease comes from a lesson about building in this week's parashat Teruma. Torah identifies creating physical space with welcoming God’s presence. We read:
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
The subtext is that God is not present among us unless we first intend to build a sacred space. There is only the possibility of holiness in construction unless our designs and our efforts are infused with ethical and moral intentions.
To be sure, this does not make every real estate developer a holy person. Rather it draws our attention toward the potential of creating sacred spaces. Perhaps the sanctuary is low-income housing included in a residential project, a church taking in refugee families or affixing a mezuzah on an office door. In these ways we continue to construct sanctuaries.
Without the intention of building spaces worth of God’s presence, there is only hollowness, a space to be filled. For those who profit where they neither contribute nor construct, we may even perceive unethical underpinnings and immorality. Selling one’s name to be placed on a building as an indication of luxury triggers my discomfort. In that instance, profit motive appears to trump sacred pursuits. Torah teaches us to participate in the creation of space worthy of divinity rather than as paeans to ego and luxury.
When we talk about Jews and building, I am reminded of the old joke that Jews have an “edifice complex,” demonstrated by the names of donors on the walls of any synagogue or non-profit agency. Those names are not displays of ego but rather a demonstration of those donors’ deeper understanding that even if we don’t build with our hands, it is holy to contribute toward the construction of buildings where the presence of the Holy One can be experienced. Without the walls of donors’ names, we might not have the reminder that it is incumbent upon us to build dwellings to house God’s presence.
You don’t have to be a real estate developer or even a major donor to construct a holy space. Create a home that supports a loving environment. Build your life with the work of helping, sharing and caring. If so, then God will dwell within. And your name, the name you display to all those who come to experience your creations, will establish God’s presence right here on earth.
R’ Evan J. Krame