Given at Society Hill Synagogue, Shabbat Terumah, February 17, 2018
This parsha (portion) has equal parts fans and haters: Architects, builders, knitters, math folks, and artisans love it. Torah leyners and people who prefer a good, juicy narrative hate it. This is because it reads kind of like an Ikea instruction manual: It’s got weird, technical words in it and complex assembly instructions – there is lots of opportunity here, for those so inclined, to geek out on the details of physical construction. As for the rest of us, we get a meta-narrative and one or two moments of deep symbolism. But I’m not complaining -- it's about art, and it's more narrative than, say, much of Leviticus.
In the first line of the portion, God tells Moshe, “Daber el b’nei Yisrael v’yik’hu li terumah,” “Tell the people of Israel to bring Me gifts.” Since this is one of the very few narrative sentences in the whole parsha (the next ninety-four verses describe how, to the cubit, to construct a holy edifice out of these gifts), let’s stay with this sentence for just a minute.
“V’yik’hu li terumah.” Terumah often gets translated as “gift” – which is correct, but incomplete. Terumah is a gift, but not the kind of gift you are born with or that just arrives miraculously, as in, “you have a gift for writing,” or “children are such a gift.” No, terumah is not a gift FROM God; rather, it is a gift TO God.
But terumah is not just any offering to God, either. In the Torah, anyone can make an individual ritual offering directly to God, but that has a different name: Minha. Terumah, on the other hand, specifically means “contribution”– in modern terms, the kind of gift you’d give to an organization or synagogue for a community project or fundraiser. Therefore, terumah necessitates a collective context; you make an offering to God, but you contribute to a community.
This becomes even clearer as we realize that each terumah God is asking for – gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper, yarns, tanned ram skins, acacia wood, etc. - is to be used in the larger collective project of building a big, beautiful mikdash, a sanctuary.
Building this mikdash demands the very attentive labor of probably every skill set in the community - artists, artisans, carpenters, miners, masons, jewelers, dolphin hunters, you name it - not to mention all the cooking, childcare, and maintenance needed to support a community involved in such an elaborate project.
In last year’s post on this parsha (scroll down two posts to the picture of lapis lazuli), I wrote about the great scholar Rashi and his take on hidur mitzvah, the act of beautifying a good deed. Essentially, Rashi describes a process in which the creator of a holy object “toils to become beautiful” by making the object as beautiful as it can be. In Rashi’s view, beauty enters the artist/artisan/builder/creator through their act of creating something beautiful.
Right at the start of in this portion, God asks the entire community to engage in a huge, communal act of hidur mitzvah: building not just any sanctuary, but one with extensive artistic detail. Then, in the one other narrative nugget we get, God explains why: “V’asu li mikdash- v’shachanti betocham” – “Let them make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”
The mishkan is the house, or physical container. The mikdash is the sanctuary, or holy space. God says, Let them build me a mikdash (holy space), and then gives specific instructions for how to build and beautify the mishkan (the physical house) that will contain it.
The first thing to notice here is that God does not say, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in IT,” the sanctuary. Instead, God says, “I will dwell among THEM,” i.e., the people who made the sanctuary. This begs the question: Do the people who made the mikdash have to be inside it for God to dwell among them? The language suggests no: It is the act of making the mikdash, not their presence in the mikdash, that brings God to them.
The second thing to notice is the word “betocham” – literally, “in them.” “V’Shachanti betocham” is often translated as “I will dwell among them,” but it can also mean, “I will dwell inside them.”
This can be read to mean that God is brought not only into the collective but inside each person - each person becomes a Holy container - through their act of terumah, of contributing to the collective project. Just as in Rashi's view we become beautiful by creating beauty, so by making the mishkan, we ourselves become the mikdash.
When gentiles in Nazi Europe harbored Jews, they became the mikdash.
When free Americans made their houses into stops on the Underground Railroad, they became the mikdash.
When we contribute to building shelters for people experiencing homelessness, we become the mikdash.
When we shelter, sustain, and stand up for abused women, LGBTI folk, and children, we become the mikdash.
When we make our cities into sanctuaries for immigrants pursued by ICE, we become the mikdash.
When we open our classrooms and use our bodies to shield students from bullets, we become the mikdash.
When we act to make space in our legislatures and write laws to protect everyone from violence in our communities, we become the mikdash.
May we toil to become beautiful. And now more than ever, may we find and keep finding our ways, individually and collectively, to become the mikdash.