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Nearly a third of the entire book of Exodus is dedicated to the design and construction of the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan. This week’s parsha focuses mostly on the architectural plans, but it also contains three very important themes:

  • Community building

  • The giving of personal resources for a common goal

  • A new vision of God’s place in the world

So let’s recap for a moment:

The Israelites have left Egypt, received manna, travelled to Mount Sinai, received the law and have now been instructed by God through Moses to build a Sanctuary, a Tabernacle, a Mishkan to house the tablets that the law will be written on and to create a sacred and holy space on earth so that God can abide among them. Great detail is given about the size of the Mishkan, the furnishings, the gold that must be used, the colours of the fabrics and more. And furthermore, God tells us that every person is to give towards the building of the Mishkan – to give according to their own heart. They are to give not only from their possessions – but to give their time and energy to the building.

Rabbi Sharon Sobel provides an eloquent explanation of the purpose of the Mishkan in creating a holy community. In A Women’s Torah Commentary, she writes, “Commentators are intrigued by the notion that God will not dwell in the sanctuary, but rather, within them, within the people. The sanctuary is not for God, it is for the people, it is to be a visible symbol of God’s presence in their midst. God’s promise to dwell among the people is recognition of the limitations of human beings in trying to understand that God is everywhere. The tabernacle is a concession to humankind and provides a visible focus for the idea of God’s indwelling.

But what does it mean that the building of the sanctuary will cause God to “dwell within the people?” Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz says, “Surely these words contain a message of Divine love, a promise of intimate contact with God.”

According to Isaac Abravanel, “The Divine intention behind the construction of the Tabernacle was to combat the idea that God had forsaken the earth and that His throne was in heaven and remote from humankind. To correct this erroneous belief, God commanded them to make a Tabernacle, as if to say that God lived in their minds . . . in order to implant in their hearts His presence.”

Therefore, it is not the physical space itself that causes God’s presence to come into our midst, and it is not the physical space itself that is holy. Rather, it is the involvement of the community, expending its labour on God’s behalf. It is the act of the community joining together to make a sacred space. It is the rituals that take place within that space that bring God’s presence into the midst of the people The purpose of the involvement of all the people in building the tabernacle is, as Torah commentator Pinchas Peli explains, to “Convert the people from passive participants in their relationship with God, as constant recipients of God’s gifts, into active partners.”

This week I studied with Rabbi Binny Freedman of the World Mizrachi Movement and I’d like to share the highlights of this study with you tonight. Parsha Terumah at first blush seems like a boring litany of meaningless details – but when you study the parsha with a teacher like Rabbi Freedman – it opens up a world of relevancy and meaning.

A Study with Rabbi Binny Freedman (World Mizrachi Movement) :

This week’s portion, Terumah, introduces us to one of the most challenging concepts in Judaism.

“Ve’Asu’ Li’ Mikdash, Ve’Shachanti’ Be’Tocham.”

“And they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” (Shemot 25:8)

G-d wants… what, exactly? A home? A sanctuary? The most obvious difficulty with this idea is why, and in fact, how G-d, the endless unlimited One, can or would be confined to a limited space? One of the first things we learn about G-d as children is that G-d is everywhere. Indeed, this is one of the foundations of Judaism, which arguably differentiates it from Christianity: that G-d cannot be physical.

Maimonides, in his Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 1:7) makes clear that if G- d were physical, He would have a beginning and an end, which is in opposition to the basic tenets of Judaism. So how can G-d, the Endless One, have a physical home? And why is this concept introduced here, immediately after the giving of the Torah and its laws at Sinai, which has been the focus of these last two portions (Yitro and Mishpatim)?

It is also interesting to note that the manner in which we are asked to fulfill this mitzvah is unique up to this point in Jewish history. The normal fashion in which we are given a mitzvah is in the form of a command, or obligation. And while our challenge is to view such obligations as opportunities, in the end, as Jews, they are very clearly presented in the Torah as being a demand. The Torah does not suggest that we might be interested in celebrating Shabbat, or respecting our parents. G-d demands these mitzvoth, as an example, in the Ten Commandments. But this mitzvah, to build a sanctuary, is quite different:

“Speak to the children of Israel, and let them take for me Terumah (offerings); from everyone whose heart prompts him, shall you take my offerings.” (25:1)

We are not commanded, it seems, to build a sanctuary, we are, rather, asked to donate the necessary materials for this first Jewish building project. Indeed, this appears to be the first Federation capital campaign! Why is the building of the Tabernacle, clearly the forerunner of the Temple, one of the most central ideas in Judaism, only based on voluntary giving?

There is a fascinating and well-known debate as to the motivation behind this ‘commandment’.

Rashi suggests (31:18) that although this commandment appears two whole portions before the account of the sin of the Golden calf, the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order, and the mitzvah to build a sanctuary actually follows the sin of the Golden calf. Indeed, many have suggested that we were given the mitzvah to build the sanctuary as a result of the debacle of the Golden calf, which raises a challenging question: if, indeed, the opportunity to build a physical sanctuary for G-d is a way for us to atone for the mistake we made in building a Golden calf, then the mitzvah to build a sanctuary is only the result of our mistake. Which means that in an ideal world, we would not have sinned and consequently would not need to build such a sanctuary!

Can it be that ideally Judaism would be better off without a Temple? Does this mean that ideally we would and should not have a need to focus our attentions on physical space, but that the goal should have been to see all space as equally holy? Would we be better off without a Temple?

Perhaps it is for this reason that the Ramban vehemently disagrees with Rashi’s approach. According to the Ramban (25:1), the commandment to build G-d a sanctuary on earth appears before the Golden calf, because it was given prior to the sin of the calf.

Building G-d a sanctuary on earth is one of the most basic ideas in Judaism, and was not, suggests the Ramban, the result of a mistake, but rather an ideal given as part of G-d’s plan for the Jewish people and the world exactly when we were meant to receive it, immediately after the Sinai experience.

Indeed, the Torah suggests very clearly that the idea of a Temple exists prior to the Golden calf, as, for example in the Song of the Sea. Seven weeks prior to their arrival at Sinai, and over three months before the Golden Calf, the Jews, after the splitting of the Sea sing:

“You shall bring them in (the Jews) and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance, in the place you have worked to sit in, a Temple (“Mikdash”) of G-d have your hands prepared.” (Shemot 15:17)

This obvious reference to the dream of a Temple on “the mountain”, clearly demonstrates that the idea of a temple was not, in its entirety, the result of the Golden calf.

Indeed, even according to Rashi, one need not suggest that just because the commandment to build a tabernacle in the desert was the result of the Golden calf that the same would necessarily hold true for the permanent Temple we would one day build in the land of Israel.

Rashi was certainly well aware of the above- mentioned verse (and many others) and may merely have been suggesting that in an ideal world we would never have needed a temporary Mishkan (Tabernacle), and would have gone directly to Israel to build the more permanent Temple in Jerusalem.

Which of course, leaves us wondering why the mistake of the Golden calf, according to Rashi, demonstrated the need for building G-d a physical space much sooner? And if this supposition is correct, both Rashi and the Ramban (and everyone else) sees the need for a physical home for G-d as essential to Judaism and to the Jewish people’s mission on earth. Why?

The Ramban, in discussing the goal of building this sanctuary for G-d in the desert, says that the essence of this Mishkan (Tabernacle) was to recreate the Sinai experience, wherein G-d’s presence dwelled on the mountain. (19:20).

In other words, the mitzvah to build a physical space on earth for G-d’s presence stems from the first physical place where G-d chose to ‘dwell’ on earth: Mount Sinai. Indeed, the very notion of receiving the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai raises, essentially, the same question as does the Mishkan: why did we, as a people have to go to a specific mountain in order to receive the Torah? If G-d is everywhere, what difference did it make where we were when we received the Torah? We could have been anywhere in the desert; in fact, we could have received the Torah immediately after the splitting of the Sea, when it is clear the Jewish people were on an incredibly high level, having just witnessed G-d’s presence in the world on an unprecedented level. So why did G-d’s presence need to be associated with such a specific place?

The idea of a heightened relationship with G-d and the ability to connect with G-d seems almost always to occur in connection with space. Moses’ relationship with G-d begins at the Burning Bush on Mount Chorev, which is very clearly the same mountain we will later refer to as Sinai.

And all of the forefathers have intense spiritual experiences associated with specific spaces. Abraham has to take his beloved son Yitzchak all the way to Mount Moriah (which Jewish tradition has as the same mountain where the Temple will one day stand), and Yitzchak, just prior to his marriage with Rivkah goes out to pray “in the field”. Why does he need to be in the field? What difference does it make where you are when you pray? Shouldn’t it be all about who you are? And Yaakov has his famous dream of angels and ladders in Beit El, where he ultimately declares:

“Indeed G-d is in this place!” (Genesis 28:16)

But isn’t G-d in every place? Why and how could G-d be limited to place, and space? In fact, the very dawn of Judaism carries this same challenge: the first command G-d gives Abraham is to go “…to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) Why does Abraham even need to go to a specific land? If his mission is to bring G-d into the world, why can’t he get started right away in Mesopotamia?

This mitzvah forces us to confront one of the most basic themes in Judaism: the seeming need for creating sacred space. This central position in Judaism is one we are confronted with every time we go to pray in a synagogue.

One way of exploring the nature of this entire concept might be to understand why Rashi feels that the mistake of the Golden calf necessitated a temporary physical sanctuary for G-d in the desert, perhaps even before originally planned. What does the Golden calf have to do with building a Tabernacle?

Think about it: people often assume that the Golden calf was such a great transgression on the part of the Jewish people because six weeks after hearing the Ten Commandments, including: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the Jews seemingly ‘forgot’ all about G-d, and sank back into their Egyptian habits and idolatries. But in truth, that would be incomprehensible. Could anyone, after hearing the word of G-d directly, and while still at the very foot of Sinai, forget such a basic truth as the Oneness of G-d?

No, the Jewish people’s mistake at Sinai was not that they forgot about G-d; it was that they weren’t quite sure what to do with G-d. If the challenge we received at Sinai was to make this entire physical, temporal world a sanctuary for G-d, how are we meant to do that? How can we, as physical beings, create a relationship with something as endless and intangible as G-d?

Indeed, it is interesting that the mistake of the Golden calf begins somehow when the people lose touch with Moshe.

“Va’Yar Ha’Am Ki’ Boshesh Moshe”, “And the people saw that Moshe tarried.” (32:l)

The people, perhaps, were looking to Moshe to be the medium through which they related to G-d, much like the high priests of Egypt they were so accustomed to. But Judaism does not believe in anyone coming in between our creator and us. Each of us has to find our own personal path to a relationship with G-d.

And it may have made a lot of sense to the people that Moshe was not coming down off the mountain; after all, the goal may have been for the individual to leave this physical world behind and embrace the spiritual existence that lies beyond the physical. But again, this is not Judaism. Judaism has never suggested that one comes closer to the spiritual essence of G-d by abandoning the physical world. In Judaism, the goal is not to find G-d on top of Mount Sinai; the goal is to bring G-d down below.

Can I infuse the physical world with the spiritual essence of G-d? This is the ultimate question posited to us as a people at Sinai. And this is why the Jewish people attempt to infuse the very spiritual experience of Sinai, which began with three days of separation and purification (19:10-11,15), with the very physical experience of the Golden calf.

But they were sadly mistaken, because in the end, they were not infusing the physical with the spiritual, they were merely creating a purely physical experience alongside a purely spiritual one.

So often, when we speak of the value of the physical world in Judaism, we mistakenly believe that physical experiences are as important as spiritual ones. And we separate the two, by assuming the one or the other. We consider eating to be a physical experience, and prayer or Torah study to be spiritual in nature. But Judaism suggests that the very physical act of eating needs as well to be a spiritual high and the act of prayer needs to be wrapped up in the physical as well.

There is a beautiful Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers, which teaches that a person who interrupts his Torah study by exclaiming: “How beautiful is this tree!” literally is worthy of forfeiting his life. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that this does not mean a person should not interrupt his Torah study to wonder at the beauty of the trees. Rather, it means that if the beauty of nature and the world is an interruption of one’s Torah study, then there is something wrong with said person’s relationship with Torah. Because the beauty inherent in all of creation is not an interruption of one’s relationship with G-d, it is part of it.

However, this is a very dangerous position, because it is all too easy to sink from this idea to the perception that physical beauty is the goal, instead of a vehicle for a deeper relationship with G-d the Creator. And indeed, as Maimonides suggests in his Laws of Idolatry (1:1-5), this is precisely the mistake that leads to idolatry, when we begin to substitute the means for the ends. We begin praying to the sun as a magnificent reminder of the awesome majesty of G-d in the physical world, but very quickly we forget that the sun is a vehicle to a relationship with G-d, and we start to think that the sun is G-d.

Indeed, this is very much the challenge we face today: so often, people confuse the ends and the means, and whenever we make any means into an end, or purpose, we are ultimately creating our own idols. If money is a goal instead of a magnificent vehicle for good in this world, then it has become an idol. And I can make anything into an idol: power, health, the body, even myself; in fact, even the Torah can become an idol. If Torah ceases to be a vehicle for making the world a better place and becomes rather, the goal, where people learn Torah simply to become Torah scholars, then Torah has been transformed into a form of idolatry.

And this was the dangerous mistake the Jewish people fell into with the Golden calf, where they were not infusing a physical experience with spiritual sanctity, but rather demonstrating the value of the physical experience in the shadow of a spiritual one. And as they were only a short distance away from completely worshipping that physical experience, something had to give.

All of which is why the response, according to Rashi was to build a Mishkan. And in this Mishkan were a holy, and a Holy of Holies. And inside this Holy of Holies, on top of the ark, were none other than two cherubs, little golden angel-winged… idols! And these idols, made of gold, are at the epicenter of the holiest spot in Judaism. Because only in such a spiritual place can we recognize the challenge and the value of synthesizing both the physical and the spiritual into one, with the aim of bringing G-d into the world, through us.

This is the concept of sacred space. Every great idea and every worthy goal needs a focal point, and if the mission of the Jewish people in this world is to bring G-d into the world, then the challenge of infusing the physical world with spiritual beauty begins with being partners with G-d in creating a holy world. And the definition of holiness is seeing G-d in every physical reality, every flower and every tree, every bug and every grape.

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