Parashat Terumah 2013 – Make me a Sanctuary

This week in Torah, God gives Moshe instructions on how to build the Sanctuary in the wilderness. Just looking on the surface of the text, we read about the materials, the dimensions, the measurements, and the artifacts that go into the building of the Sanctuary. This superficial kind of reading of the text can leave us with the impression that it’s a pretty dry, boring chapter, unless, perhaps, you are a carpenter.

But you know that Torah can be read on many levels. One of the ways I like to engage with the text when I am studying it is to read it aloud, and to pay attention to what’s going on in my heart and my body and my imagination as I read. When I study Torah this way, I never know what verses are going to touch me. So, reading the parasha this week, I found myself drawn to a verse that seems to hold a lot of power. God is telling Moshe “Ve’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti betocham / Let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

In this phrase, we find the essence of two of names that Torah uses to describe the structure that God guides Moshe in building. The first name is “mikdash”, and the other is “mishkan”. “Ve’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti betocham.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. Each of these names represents a different function of the structure. When Torah calls the structure a mikdash, it is defining it from the perspective of the people. This word might be translated as “tabernacle”, but I prefer “Sanctuary”. It suggests that this structure was to be used by the people as a place to go to engage in becoming close to God.

The second name the Torah uses to refer to the Sanctuary is mishkan. This is the name that is used when the Torah is referring to God’s Presence Itself. The word mishkan on its own means “dwelling place”. The Hebrew word v’shakhanti, from our Torah phrase, means “I may dwell”. The same root is also shared by the word Shekhinah, which we know as the immanent Indwelling Presence, that aspect of divinity which dwells here in creation; which dwells in us. God says, “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I may dwell among them.” Or, perhaps, “let them make Me a sanctuary and I may dwell within them.”

Mishkan literally means the “dwelling place”. In our Torah text, the mishkan is a magnificently crafted pavilion / tent sort of structure that stands at the center of the Israelite’s camp. But if we believe that Torah applies equally to us today as it did to our ancestors, then where, really, is the mishkan? Where would we find the mishkan today? Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has found three answers in the classical rabbinic midrash.[1]

First, the mishkan is found in the human being: Yes, people donated gold, silver, copper, blue threads, purple wool, and red threads – and these are also metaphors. People donated their golden souls, their silver bodies, their copper voices, their blue veins, their purple flesh, and their red blood. Only when people committed themselves to the common good could God find a dwelling place among the people.

Second, the mishkan is located in the heavens: Sure, the mishkan is made of gold, silver, copper, blue threads, purple wool, and red thread – and these are also metaphors. The mishkan reflects the golden sun, the silver moon, the copper sunset, the blue sky, the purple clouds, the red rainbow. Only when things awesome and beautiful are reflected in behaviour can God find a dwelling place among the people.

And finally, the mishkan is also found in the entire universe: Yes, the mishkan was made with curtains, dividers, a washbasin, and a menorah – and these are also metaphors. The world is also covered with the curtain of heaven, divided into earth and sky, filled with basins of water, and lit with a golden sun. The mishkan’s magnificence simply reminds us: Holiness dwells everywhere around us.

In identifying where the Mishkan can be found, the midrashic message we take away is this: that supporting community, yearning for spiritual connection, and caring for the natural world — all these actions bring the holy Presence into your heart.

But another question arises, as questions so often do in learning Torah. If God dwells within us, in our world and universe – and not in the physical structure, no matter how beautiful it may be – then why do we need to build a sanctuary at all?

Our Torah verse is “Ve’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tocham / Let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” The last word in this verse is b’tocham.  Translated as “among them,” it can also mean “within them.” Many commentators pick up on this and focus on what it means for God to dwell “within” the people. Aviva Zornberg points out that the word does not translate as “among the nation [as a whole],” but rather, “within [each of] them”, within each person.  The Mikdash – the Mishkan – is meant to represent the fact that Holiness is able to dwell within and among each and every individual.

Siftei Chachamim is a commentary on Rashi. It states that the Mikdash is meant to be a “house in which there is a midst.” Or, as Zornberg teaches, “a hollow core where God may dwell.”  In other words, the Mishkan is an empty space awaiting God’s Presence.  Many commentators have discussed at length the contradiction of the concept that God can be both everywhere and can dwell within one specific space. Mimaleh kol almin, v’sovev kol almin – God fills all worlds and God surrounds all worlds.

Zornberg then discusses the paradox that it is the very absence of God that fuels the longing for God.  This longing causes us to be truly awake and aware of the Presence of Holiness.  Zornberg writes, “To be awake, pulses beating, is to be aware of distance, difference, to yearn to open [to God] at the right moment.  That is, God cannot be inside if God is not outside, if the heart cannot imagine its emptiness.”

There is a famous story of the great Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole earth full of God’s glory?”

Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”[2]

This idea that each of us is a Mishkan – a hollow structure with the potential for housing holiness – is an awesome one. And yet, it is up to each of us individually to allow the space within to be filled with Holiness.

Returning to our question, Why do we need to build a Sanctuary?, I wonder if maybe we need to build it not because God requires it, but because we do. Because something in us is changed when we give freely. When we build something beautiful. When we set our hands and hearts to the task of creating a space for Holiness, for the sacred, for God.

I am often asked why our prayers are so filled with praise for God. Surely God doesn’t “need” us to articulate how great God is; why, then, is our liturgy so filled with reminders of God’s transcendence and greatness? My answer is that we say these words not because God needs them, but because we do. Because something in us is changed when we remind ourselves that there is something in the world greater than we are. That we owe thanks to something beyond ourselves, that Something More.

This sanctuary which we create in this space when we pray here becomes a truly beautiful place on Friday evenings. I feel so blessed every time I step into this space. But what makes this a sanctuary is not the beauty of the building, or the curved walls or the kiddush or the kippahs. It’s not even the prayerbooks we use. What makes this a Sanctuary, a holy place, is the presence of our hearts. When we come together here, together we make this into a Sanctuary. And in return, we are able to be reminded that holiness dwells within us. Here, in our very hearts.[3]

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2012, 2013. http://onsophiastreet.com/parsha/short-takes/terumah/

[2] 1. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 277

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