Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, takes us to the world of the Mishkan and its various items, as we study verses focusing on the ceremonies performed in the context of man’s relationship with God. Something about the way the Torah presents the story of the Mishkan strikes us as rather curious.
Whereas last week’s portion, Mishpatim – which expanded on the principles set out in the Ten Commandments (e.g. “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, etc.) – could certainly be viewed as a direct continuation to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the same can hardly be said of the story of the construction of the Mishkan.
From where did this subject emerge? Why didn’t God indicate the need for a Mishkan when He revealed Himself to the nation at Mount Sinai? If we glance over the text of Parshat Terumah, we find that the word korban (“sacrifice”) or minhah (“gift offering”) do not appear anywhere in this portion. They are not even implied.
This is peculiar, considering that sacrifices and gift offerings are a major part of the daily routine at the Mishkan. Some of our Sages therefore suggested that the mitzvah to construct the Mishkan came as a reaction to the Sin of the Golden Calf, and that it wasn’t part of God’s original plan.
However, nothing in the p’shat (the literal reading of the verse) indicates anything of the sort. Besides, Parshat Terumah is juxtaposed with Parshat Mishpatim, and was set in a time that preceded the Sin of the Golden Calf, which is not recorded until next week’s reading, Ki Tisa. Other commentators tied the enthusiasm the Israelites displayed when accepting the Torah to the commandment to construct the Mishkan.
One of the Midrashim tells us that “since Israel happily accepted Divine kingship, and said ‘we shall listen to all that God says and act in accordance’, God immediately said to Moses: ‘Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take an offering for Me’ [Ex. 25:2]”. The difficulty with this Midrash is that it doesn’t explain why the nation’s joy in accepting the Torah would result in a mitzvah to construct the Tabernacle.
To understand the secret of the Mishkan, we must turn to one verse with significant ramifications: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” [ibid. 25:8].
A person might mistakenly believe that the events at Mount Sinai, where God revealed Himself to the people, and where they received the Torah, was a one-time event in human history. Therefore, so goes this line of thinking, the nation of Israel would uphold (or not) the Divine commandments, with the people going about their lives according to their understanding, but all in a way that is disconnected from God. The link between God and humans could vanish, Heaven forbid, and man would remain alone in the world, subject to the Divine laws of physics and Divine morality, with no connection to God.
It is this way of thinking that the Torah seeks to change. God is communicating that He has no intention of leaving us. It is in that spirit that our Midrashic sages teach: “After the Holy One Blessed Be He gave [us] the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and moral laws and ordinances, He said to them, ‘Please, I have given you a good lesson, do not forsake my Torah’ [Prov. 4:2]. In other words, ‘Take Me along with My Torah’”.
The Torah, along with its laws and ordinances, could have been received while severing our relationship with its Creator. But God gives us another gift; He wants to be with us forever.
What are the implications of knowing that God will always dwell among us? First, it requires us to understand that we must ensure that no one is ever abandoned to his or her fate. Whether it is someone who has endured a tragedy or a crisis in one’s family or at work, no one should ever feel they are just a cog in a machine, that no one really cares about them or about what happens to them.
Second, this knowledge can serve as a source of hope and consolation. When King David wrote, “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil shall befall me, for God is with me” [Ps. 23:4], he was not simply penning an adage. He was writing about a truth of life. We are never alone.
Third, we can now understand that our lives can be meaningful, instead of simply living it out as nature prescribes. The fact that every human being knows that God dwells within requires them to take a different approach to themselves and others around them. There is a difference between the way we speak to people when we know others are listening, and the way we do so when only us and our interlocutors are present.
Likewise, there is a difference between how we eat when we are with others, and how we eat if we are alone. Relationships between husbands and wives change significantly when they realize that the Divine dwells between them, too. Dialogue becomes much more refined, the connection becomes more profound, and it entails far greater commitment. By building a Mishkan within us, we can reach the understanding that everything we do can and should be meaningful.
The Midrash mentioned above tied the joy of receiving the Torah to the construction of the Mishkan. A person can devoutly adhere to the law and uphold it, even if he or she has no emotional relationship to it. Yet someone who rejoices in the Torah and its laws is striving to achieve a spiritual quality of life and wishes to see an ethical life as something to which they aspire, instead of something that reality dictates to them.
It is for good reason that the Torah omits the sacrifices when discussing the Mishkan. It wants to present us with the vision and the objective before teaching us how to fulfill them. Just like a couple working together to build a home founded on unending love, spelling out their mutual commitments only after the home is built, the Torah teaches us to dream and to love God, Who dwells within us. Once that love has been achieved, the Torah can teach us how this dream and this love can be manifest.
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