February 2018, Parshat Terumah

Dear friends,

This week’s Parshat Terumah is admittedly not one which easily gels with me. It begins with a detailed list of items Moshe is to fundraise. Now I find any sort of fundraising difficult. But Moshe is not just to raise funds for a modest community centre, he is instructed to collect gold, silver, copper, precious stones, finest wood, and of course goat hairs and red-dyed ram skins!

After God’s wish-list is exhaustively itemized, we then have a step-by-step instruction manual of what it is used for and how to put it together. About half way through memories of all my past trauma of putting together Ikea furniture flood in and it all starts to be quite overwhelming. Beyond my own issues, there are some legitimate questions to be asked of this week’s Parsha.

First and foremost we ask “why”? Why does God feel the need to build a house to hang out in in the first place? Is it not one the most fundamental Jewish belief that God is everywhere?! Then why does God need a house?

And if we come to terms with the idea of a needing a house then question becomes why the extravagance? Would not a simple structure do?

The answers lie in the baffling way the Torah actually instructs us to build a Mishkan. ‘And they should make for me a Mishkan and I shall dwell in them’. Grammatically it makes no sense since Mishkan is singular. What then does the ‘them’ refer to? There is a beautiful Chasidic teaching that explains ‘and I shall dwell in them – in each and every human being’. Meaning, the building of the Mishkan is really secondary to the process of making our interior selves holy.

So we come back to the question of why then build the Mishkan in the first place? Perhaps it is God’s compromise to our human need for a physical place in which to worship. And if indeed the building of the Mishkan is God’s concession to our human weakness it would follow that the nature of the place must be so as to excite those very human passions which are much more easily aroused by grandeur of gold and silver than by abstract ideas about God’s essence.

This concept readily fits in with what the Rambam says in relation to building of the Temple. Why do we need to build a Temple according to the Rambam? In order to bring sacrifices. Why do we need to bring up sacrifices? Because the spiritual state that we were in when we received the Torah was quite primitive. In other words, the Ramban says that in an ideal world of human beings absorbed in the Infinite light of God one would hardly need recourse to butchering an animal to express one’s spirituality, nor for that matter to have a demarcated space called God’s abode. God is everywhere and in everything equally and undivided.
This approach may also solve another little Midrashim puzzle. According to the Midrash quoted by Rashi the sequence of events from the past few weeks and the next few weeks are out of order, leading him to cite the famous saying to the effect that chronology in the Torah is far from strict.

As we’re already asking questions then at this point we ask what’s wrong with the order? We were taken out of Egypt in Parshat Bo/Beshalach, were given the Ten Commandments in Yitro, followed by the multitude of laws in Mishpatim, now we have this week and next building the Mishkan followed by the sin of the Golden Calf. That seems to flow quite nicely.

God may very well have only ‘decided’ to pursue the building of the Mishkan after the ancient Israelites exposed their weak spiritual state which was revealed by them dancing around the Golden Calf just 40 days after receiving the Torah only because they thought Moshe was late by one day! Clearly the people needed a tangible manifestation of God to be able to say this is our God who resides in this physical space.

This also illuminates the extravagance of the building. Gold, which was the material used in the Golden Calf, was only just the first of a huge list of precious materials to be used in the Mishkan. God, in effect, may be saying if you need such physical manifestations, let’s go all out and make this the most amazing we can. If you’re wowed by gold wait until you see this incredible design with every precious material known in those days.

The moral of the story is surely that on the one hand we need to aspire to ever spiritual heights which transcend material things. On the other hand we must be honest that ultimately we are physical beings and escaping our humanity is never something that can be completely attained. Our job is to take the next step forward, not to insist on an idealised reality. So come to the Ark this Shabbat and you will surely feel the presence of God!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur