Message for Terumah 3 March 2017


A Shrine of Actions


There are many Jewish institutions around the world named after Mt. Sinai. Hospitals, synagogues,
schools, cemeteries. You name it. In the Jewish tradition, Mt. Sinai has a central role. The book of
Exodus teaches that something awesome happened at the foot of the mountain. We bound up with each
other as a people and with God. Yet, despite all this, Mt. Sinai did not retain its holiness after the Jews
moved on. Mt. Sinai did not become a site of pilgrimage. As a matter of fact, no one knows which
mountain it is. If you ever visited Mt. Sinai during a trip to the Sinai Peninsula, you did not visit Mt.
Sinai. According to our tradition no mountain is holy but God is holy, and God’s presence is what makes
a place holy.

We know it from the fact that when the Jewish people leave Mt. Sinai, God comes with us on our
journey through the wilderness. As we see in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Terumah,
the Jews are asked to build a mikdash, a sanctuary. The word mikdash literally means “place of
holiness,” related to the Hebrew words Kadosh, Kedushah. The mikdash that the Jews built in the desert,
was a mobile mikdash, sometimes also referred as the tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting.

The mikdash was put together every time the Jews would stop at a place, and when they left, they picked
it up and carried it all! That by itself is odd, because in the Ancient world, people venerated places –
mountains, rivers, rock formations, but the Jews carried their mikdash with them everywhere they went.

Yet, the oddest thing is the text itself, ve’sasu mikdash … “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may
dwell among them.” These kind of phrases is what makes the Torah so wonderful. Wouldn’t you have
expected, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT,” in the mikdash, in the sanctuary?
Well, I would have. This turn of phrase is so unexpected that commentators old and new have tried their
hand at it for millennia.

The JPS commentary, a Modern commentary, explains that “The literal meaning of shakhan is “to rest,”
not “to dwell.” The sanctuary is not meant to be taken literally as God’s abode; God dwells in heaven
[everyone knows that! If I may add]. The mikdash is a focal point towards which “the people may direct
their hearts and minds.” In other words, this is the origin of the idea that God’s presence is different than
God-self. We call this the shekhinah, the Divine Presence. I think this is all very interesting but I am not
convinced. The text says b’tocham “among them,” so, I wonder, how does God “dwell among them.”

A more traditional Jewish interpretation is found in the ancient Midrash. It tells of a king who gave his
only daughter in marriage to a prince from another country. He told his daughter, “I cannot prevent you
from moving away with your husband, but it grieves me to have you leave. Do this for me, then.
Wherever you live, build an apartment for me so that I can come and visit you.” Thus, God says to
Israel, “Wherever you travel, build a shrine for Me that I may dwell among you.”

This interpretation suggests that the tabernacle was fashioned to meet God’s needs as well as Israel’s.
We often speak of a partnership with God; that God created an imperfect world. We humans are here on
earth to make the world a better place. God needs us to finish the task because there is still much work to
be done. In the words of our Founding Fathers,

“[…]to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, […] promote the general Welfare, and
secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Because, you see, God’s presence is not found in a building, the same way that justice and equality are
not found in any government institution. God’s presence among us is found in the hearts and souls of the
people who fashion and sanctify the building. The great 18th century Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai
teaches,

“the meaning [of “Make Me a sanctuary”] is that from immemorial times the Shekhinah was
manifested among the righteous; and now that God has commanded a place where the Shekhinah
may dwell one could make the mistake to think that God presence is not found among the
righteous. It demands that we all be righteous”

This interpretation teaches us that God’s dwelling among the people could not bring holiness by itself
unless we act in Godly ways. God’s presence among us constitutes a challenge to be righteous. The
prophet Isiah expressed it beautifully:

“No, this is the fast [God] desire[s]: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of
the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the
hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to ignore your own kin." (Is. 58:6-7)

Our compassionate acts, our care for the other, that’s what builds a Divine shrine. God acts through us in
the world. A mikdash, a holy place does not happen automatically. A religious building empty of
righteous deeds cannot contain any holiness. A prosperous city lacking acceptance of the other, cannot
contain any holiness. A powerful county without justice for all is no “shining city upon a hill.”

In the desert of Sinai our people carried each piece of the mikdash, they literally carried God’s dwelling
place through the wilderness. In each generation, we are called to do the same. Today we are to carry
holiness with us, to bring holiness forward whenever we witness the moral wilderness that seems to
surround us.

Let us walk into the wilderness with determination knowing, in our hearts, that it is only when we
welcome those less fortunate than us that God dwells among us. It is only when we reach out to the
strangers among us, that God dwells among us. It is only when we embrace all our neighbors, whether
they are transgender individuals, Muslim or Hindus, that God dwells among us. It is only when we
respect each other’s holy places, each other’s cemeteries and schools, that God may dwell among us.