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Parshat Terumah: Finding a Place for G-d to Live among Us, D'var Torah by Jack Muskat, February 17, 2018

06/03/2018 04:39:29 PM


And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8)

Today’s Parsha begins the narrative of the building of the sanctuary and the construction of its utensils. The entire focus of the Torah from this point on, through the end of the Book of Shemot (Exodus), The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and half of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is on the Mishkan, (Sanctuary). In total, 354 verses are devoted to the building of the Tabernacle, the preparation of the priestly garments, rules of sacrifice, etc., and a mere 34 verses are devoted to the Creation of the World in the opening chapter of Genesis?

What is going on here? Surely the creation of the Universe should merit more than 31 verses--34 verses if you include the Shabbat—than the numbing details of architectural design for the fabrication and assembly of the Mishkan, a task so daunting that even Moses could not comprehend the instructions for the construction of the Menorah, which sounds suspiciously that it may have originally come from IKEA, hence the confusion.

And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8)

Where in the text is the exaltation and joy that attends the Shechina, the dwelling place of Hashem. Has the beauty of G-d’s presence been reduced to a linear table of cubits and right angles, colours and materials, joined in precise detail, according to a prescriptive mathematical formula.

“The length of each cloth shall be thirty cubits, the width four…. eleven cloths have the same measurements…. Join 5 cloths in one set…fold over the sixth cloth at the front of the tent. Make 50 loops…make 50 copper clasps…while the extra length shall hang at the bottom of the 2 sides of the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 26: 8-13)

Solomon’s Temple was constructed 500 years after the Mishkan, and here, too, every last detail was carefully spelled out for King David “All this put in writing by the hand of G-d who instructed me in all works of the design.” (Divrei Hayamim I: 28:11-13, 19). Six chapters of the Book of Melachim are dedicated to the minutiae of the construction of Shlomo’s temple (and only 3 sentences are devoted to his legendary mechanized throne). The Second Temple is also described in detail in the Mishnah, in the Tractate Middot (measurements). Finally, the prophet Ezekiel, is shown a vision of a temple, the Third Temple, which is prophesied to be 36 times larger than the current area set aside on the Temple Mount for what was the site of the First and Second Temples.

G-d commands Ezekiel, who was living in Exile in Babylon just after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE: “Shall the construction of my house be ignored because my children are in exile”?

 I draw your attention to the emphasis placed on the building of the Temple (Mikdash) by prophets,

Kings, rabbis, and by G-d, who, paradoxically, demands from exiled Jews in Babylon, a defeated people without a land to create a psychological and psychic space for the construction of a temple upon their eventual return to the Holy Land. It is as if G-d is instructing us to concern ourselves with the creation of a celestial blueprint for the service of our Lord, Hashem, before we can take another step. Not unlike having to read the fine print on the User’s Agreement and clicking AGREE before being able to download the software or join Netflix.

While it is appealing to some of us, and I include myself, to kind of skip over the rest of this Parsha, indeed, skip over the next 10 chapters of Exodus and all of Leviticus, whose text is preoccupied with priestly rites, sacrifices and other social practices, seemingly so alien and distant from our own lives. Given the tragic history of our people throughout its history from the first exile in Babylon to the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, through nearly 2000 years of exile and oppression culminating in the annihilation of  one-third of our people in the Holocaust, and with that the rebirth of the Jewish people in the modern State of Israel, a mere 70 years ago, that we need not concern ourselves with these matters of ritual, tabernacle, priestly sacrifice, and the like, on moral grounds alone. Have we not more important things to focus on than on the building of the Mishkan?

The closest reading, I have had to date about the Tabernacle, the Ark, the Holy of Holies, the Mishkan, etc, was brought to me cinematically by Steven Spielberg in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember a lot of melting going on.  And it is precisely because this Torah portion can be so easily dismissed as historical or allegorical, charming at best, cartoonish at worst, patronizingly indulged through the lens of historicism:

“ Oh, look quaint this all is, the Priests are so cute in their vestments, the Israelites so willingly naïve and childlike. But this is 2018, and we are modern, progressive and enlightened Jews. We have a little interest in talking about, let alone building a Third Temple, as we do in bringing back corporal punishment to discipline our children.” 

It is so easy to dismiss this Parsha precisely because it is so remote from our experience. So, let us return to the beginning of the Parsha and have a look with fresh eyes.

And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8)

First some context. After 400 years of slavery, the Israelites are liberated from Egypt, cross the Reed Sea, and are given the Ten Commandments and Torah, a mere 5 chapters ago (Parshat Yitro: 20)

The Israelites had just gone through some of the most transcendent special effects (the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Reed Sea, the Manna) that would endear them to G-d, and renew their trust in Moses ( a trust soon to be broken with the Golden Calf), but nonetheless, G-d saw favour in a people that said : “Naaseh, VeNishma” “We will do, and we will hear (Exodus 24:7). So, based on the strength of this unconditional commitment to serve G-d, this unabashed love for G-d, the chapter begins:

“Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts: You shall accept gifts from every person whose heart moves him or her.” (25:2)

Unlike Tzedakah, which we are obligated to fulfill, G-d instructs Moses to accept only those gifts given lovingly and freely. A question immediately arises: “How do we resolve the contradiction in being commanded to give freely?”. Is it any different than when your boss asks you to work late, but only if you want to?

Nonetheless, the sentiment of gracious giving extends throughout the passage, both in types of gifts and in the inclusiveness of the entire community, men and women alike. Men were primarily engaged in metallurgy and carpentry, and women were responsible for spinning and weaving textiles, producing the priests’ garments from the dyes procured by the men. The involvement of the whole community is made explicit in Parshat VeYakhal (35:22):

Men and women alike, all whose hearts moved them, came bringing objects of all kinds.”

Further, and these are the gifts that you, Moses, shall accept from them:

“Gold, silver and copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linens, dolphin skins, acacia wood, oil, spices and gemstones.”

These objects and substances represent the seven categories of material which at the time signified the completeness of the world. The Parsha begins:

“And G-d speaks to Moses” (25:1). The directions for the building of the tabernacle were presented to Moses at Sinai, thereby linking the remainder of Book of Exodus to the preceding narrative about the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai.

**All of which brings me back to the central point of this Parsha “How do we transition as people from the transcendent Sinai to a sanctified every day?”

And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8)

Does G-d really need a sanctuary for us, or do we need a sanctuary for him? Are we building a Mishkan to capture the sacredness and holiness of the Lord, Hashem, to make a place where the Divine Spirit resides? Again, it would appear not. A close reading of the text reveals a syntactical difference between the singular “Ve Asu Li Mikdash” (and you will make ME a sanctuary) and the plural “Ve Shechanti B’ Tocham” (And I dwelled among THEM). And since the people were forbidden to enter the Mishkan at all, G-d must be referring to being part of each of us, wherever we may be, most notably outside of the Mikdash. And further note that G-d does not say “Ve Asu Li Mishkan” which imply a physical “dwelling place” but says instead, “Ve Asu Li Mikdash”, which refers to a “sanctuary” or a “state of sanctification”. And as if to drive the point home G-d instructs the building of a portable tabernacle, which by its very nature will travel with the people as they sojourn to the land of Canaan.

G-d wants us to build a place that is eternal but not permanent, that contains his “Shechina”, but he doesn’t live there, but is to be found instead outside of the Tabernacle, dwelling in each of us, so long as we obey the Torah to the best of our ability, and give of each other in sincerity and goodwill.

At its very essence, the purpose of the Mishkan is to provide the Jewish people with the methodology through which to serve G-d, a process or a work plan that contains the routines, procedures, and actions that bring the “sacred” into the “everyday” and which can be practiced by everybody.

The Torah was given at Sinai, in a desert devoid of form, to a people barely able to conceptualize, let alone express, their new-found freedom. And with freedom comes chaos unless we can derive rules of engagement appropriate to the situation, and out of which we can create order.

We typically read this Parsha at the beginning of the month of Adar, about six weeks before Passover, which is also a time when we partake in a Seder, which means “order” and where our story of enslavement and liberation unfolds. To conclude with some thoughts for discussion:

If G-d is saying, ‘build me a sanctuary but don’t fall in love with the building, for I am not in the building but in each of you, then what shall we make of those who wish to build a Third Temple, or of the Women of the Wall, who wish to pray at the Kotel and not at the seemingly inferior Robinson Arch.  As history has twice taught us the bitter lesson of falling in love with a place, the site of the destruction of not one, but two temples, are we so reckless and foolish as to try for a Third Temple, Ezekiel’s prophecy notwithstanding. Does G-d really want us to build a Mamilla Mall size Temple on the site of the last two? After all, it doesn’t seem like a very lucky place for Jewish temples. Better to look to build in the Jerusalem suburbs, with ample free parking and better lighting.
Should the Women of the Wall be barred from davening at the Kotel? If the Shechina resides in each of us, man and woman alike, observant or not, old and young alike, then why are the ultra-orthodox the self-appointed gatekeepers of the Kotel and its environs. Equally, shouldn’t we be OK with the Robinson Arch if G-d dwells everywhere and not in any one place.

I raise these questions in the context of theology and Judaic practice, but they are as relevant today in our highly charged international and domestic Israeli political context.  I would urge those on all sides of the political spectrum to carefully consider the ethos of Parshat Terumah; that we need to sanctify a place for the worship of G-d, but that godliness and holiness are not rooted in a physical space, but in us.  And when we act as Menschen, with Dercech Eretz and respect for one another,

we make a place “holy.” It is the manner in which we interact with a space that endows it with Kedusha. The sacredness is embedded in the quality of the relationship we bring to G-d.

The ancient Israelites needed the Mishkan to help them focus their devotion, to provide them with order and stability out of uncertainty and chaos. They needed 354 verses to get the order right, to lay down the spiritual DNA for living and to provide us with the security and comfort that we are fulfilling G-d’s will through our Jewish practice.

As we look around our own sanctuary today, we can detect vestiges of the original Mishkan, our Aharon Kodesh, the Holy Ark that houses our Ten Commandments and Torah, our Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame, that symbolizes the light of G-d, the Bimah, or table that is draped in blue-purple cloth, and the Cherubim, that are often present in other synagogue sanctuaries, and stand guard over the proceedings. Ah, the Cherubim. But that is a topic for another day.


Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784