Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Parashat Terumah 2014

Parashat Terumah
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
31st January 2014

A Lesson Concerning the Eternal

The Torah portion for this week, T’rumah, interrupts the narrative concerning the events at Mount Sinai to introduce an entirely new theme: the building of the mishkan, ‘tabernacle’ (literally: ‘dwelling place’), in the wilderness – also referred to as a mikdash, ‘sanctuary’. Why? One way of responding to this question is to explore the interruption as an alternative narrative: Imagine for a moment that rather than creating a molten calf during Moses’ absence on the mountain – which is what we learn when the story picks up again in parashat Ki Tissa (Exodus 32) – the people made an abode for God… (See: Ch. 11 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism, David Paul, 2012). Another way of responding is to consider the interruption as an opportunity to learn a lesson concerning the Eternal.

The key verse of T’rumah from my point of view – whatever I/you make of the interruption – is right near the beginning, at Exodus 25, verse 8:

‘V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

The writer Gabriel Josipovici has called the Bible, ‘The Book of God’ (Yale University Press, 1988). He is right. The Bible in general – and theTorah, in particular – is all about God. God is the central character, who has the first word (and the last). The Bible is the epic story of the Eternal. Each portion of the Torah is part of this narrative. And so we read:

‘V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

But the Bible is not just the Book of God, with the Eternal as the principal character. It is a resource of lessons concerning the Eternal – lessons that are relevant to us today, as they were to previous generations: to those who wandered in the wilderness; to those who settled in the land beyond the Jordan; to those who made pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with their offerings; to those who created the first synagogues, and gathered to study and pray and support one another. One of these lessons is articulated by this simple verse:

‘V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

To understand the lesson we have to go back to the narrative, to the end of the previous portion, Mishpatim, at Exodus 24 (:15-18):

‘When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. / The glory of the Eternal dwelt – va-yishkon – on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day God called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. / Now the appearance of the glory of the Eternal was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the Israelites. / Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.’

The presentation of the narrative at the end of last week’s parashah (portion) leaves the reader with a strong and compelling image: the Eternal ‘dwelling’ – the Hebrew root is Shin Khav Nun – in the cloud on the top of the mountain; an image which also presents us with a depiction of ‘the lonely man of faith’ (an expression used in a different context by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik). It is a potent image: the Eternal, utterly ineffable and transcendent; the human Seeker, utterly alone. This image is not only projected in Exodus chapter 24, it is a perception of the nature of spirituality shared by so many people the world over: In order to find God, the individual must go on a journey to a faraway place on the top of a mountain. In the 1960s, the Beatles’ famous visits to the Maharaja highlighted a new trend of young people travelling to the high places of northern India on a spiritual quest. Today, scores of young Israelis make similar pilgrimages at the end of their army service – in search of a spiritual dimension beyond the messy, material and moral complexity of daily life in the State of Israel.· Yes, the Eternal is to be found dwelling high on a mountain in a far-off land…

But the Torah does not leave the reader contemplating the mysteries of a spiritual encounter that lasted forty days and forty nights high on a mountain wreathed in cloud. On the contrary, it turns our attention away from the heights to a project that quite literally, involves nuts and bolts, and must be set up firmly on the ground:

‘V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

And so, parashat T’rumah begins (25:1-8):

‘The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering, from each person whose heart is willingyou shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats hair; ram skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, the cape and the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’

Each person is called upon to participate in the sacred project of bringing God down-to-earth to dwell, not in a sacred abode, but rather amongthe people – which is why the text says, b’tokham, ‘among them’, not, bo, ‘in it’. This is the lesson concerning the Eternal that parashat T’rumah interrupts the narrative to tell us: God does not dwell only on mountains in far-away places; the Eternal dwells amongst us, when individuals cooperate together, each bringing their own unique contribution to the task of building community. The community is the abode of the Eternal.