Gold, silver and onyx, rich woods and brilliant dyes of purple, red and blue... This week's Torah portion, Terumah, is filled with dazzling imagery about the construction of the mikdash, the portable sanctuary which would accompany the Israelites in the wilderness. Yet there seems to be a fundamental question undercutting the elaborate description in Exodus 25-27—why does God need a home?
God is not a physical being and doesn’t need a dwelling place. If God is truly all-powerful and omnipresent, why is there a command to build the mikdash to house God in the first place? After all, God had no need for a home when God took the Israelites out of Egypt or during the giving of the 10 Commandments just a few chapters earlier. And, if God does dwell in one place, does that mean that God is absent from other parts of the world?
The rabbis of old were troubled by this description too. Instead of reading the verse as an obligation God imposed upon the Israelites, they re-interpreted it as a divine concession based on God's understanding of human limitations. For example, the medieval commentator Abravanel (d. 1508) asserted that God realized that the Israelites needed a physical space for God so that they would not feel that that God was remote and indifferent. Building the Tabernacle, therefore, was a deliberate act of divine grace designed to strengthen the Israelites’ relationship with and experience of God. According to this approach, God consented to the construction of the tabernacle because the Israelites requested it, not because God felt a need to have it built.
A second, related reason the rabbis gave for the construction of the mikdash is that it was a sign that God forgave the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf. According to Midrash Tanhuma (Terumah 8), God’s willingness to dwell amongst the Israelites after they had strayed so egregiously was an implicit way of signaling God's mercy. Indeed, the building of the tabernacle itself serves as a powerful symbol—the gold used to build the Golden Calf is recycled for the construction of the mikdash.
A third approach looks at the text a little differently, a little more closely. The biblical instruction in Exodus 25:8 should read “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” meaning that if the Israelites build the sanctuary, then God will have a place to live. To paraphrase from Field of Dreams, “If they build it, God will come!” But, as noted by the commentator Zedah La-derekh (d. 1385), the text actually states “that I may dwell amongst them” (Exodus 25:8). God is not coming to live in the mikdash, but among the Israelites themselves. God is telling the Israelites that if they participate in the construction of the sanctuary, then God will reward them by dwelling among each and every one of them. God is not interested so much in entering the precincts of the sanctuary, but the hearts of the Israelite people.
There are several timeless and interrelated challenges inherent in this interpretation: do we have the courage to embrace the God that dwells within each of us? Are we willing to bring God into our lives outside of our places of worship, or do we relegate God to living in our formal religious spaces? Can we experience the Divine while living in the secular world, the world of our routine lives?
Our parashah (portion) itself provides guidance as to how to experience God more intimately. According to the text, God’s close presence among us isn’t a given, it is conditional—God only comes to dwell among us when we take action to construct holy spaces. Terumah, from which our parashah takes its name, was a voluntary offering that each individual was to give, as dictated by his or her heart, for the construction of the mikdash. There was neither an obligation to give nor a limit on how much could be given (Exodus 25:2).
The question today is what gifts are we willing to give—time, money, skill? And are we prepared to build sacred structures—personal, communal, global? Of course, these will take different shapes and forms depending on the individual and the community he or she lives in. What we all share in common is the need to create the spiritual infrastructure necessary to enable us to experience God’s presence. In so doing, we will construct the type of mikdash, the type of world, we would want God to live in.
To paraphrase the famous Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (d.1859), God lives wherever we let God in.
Let’s start creating the space.