The following is the D’var Torah that I delivered Erev Shabbat:
“G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, G-d lays forth a plan for creating a holy space – a portable sanctuary to be carried through the wilderness. G-d begins by asking for gifts. If the whole of creation belongs to G-d, why does G-d need gifts from us?
The answer is two-fold, and we can understand it by looking at the items requested. The first is that these are all objects of value and difficult to find. Blue, purple and crimson yarns are rare and expensive. The metals and skins would have been heavy to transport and hard to get. And… dolphin skins? In the desert? Really?
Finding, gathering, and then donating rare and valuable items is a hardship. G-d is asking people of means to give a real piece of themselves to the building of this Tabernacle. This is an investment, and when we finance a project, we often devote ourselves to it emotionally as well. This is the first layer.
You will notice that G-d doesn’t ask people to bring a gold lamp, a silver breast piece, or a blue mantle. The items that G-d requests are all raw materials out of which these can be fashioned. G-d then spends the rest of the parshah describing what the artists should create. This brings us to the next layer of G-d’s request – the emotional and artistic investment. Those who have been blessed with artistic skill will now give of themselves to fashion this house of G-d out of the raw materials brought by those of means. The people will literally “make” a sanctuary for G-d – devoting their time, energy, and creativity to the project. G-d said, “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell there.” It is the act of making that allows God to live among the people.
The Hebrew word here “asu” means both make and do. It is the same word used in the prayer, Oseh Shalom. We must Do in order to Make. Peace isn’t something that simply descends upon the people from on high. We ask G-d to be active in making peace and then we do the same. In the building of the sanctuary we are involved participants in the creation of holy space which G-d then echoes by dwelling there.
This brings us to the next important question that this passage raises. If G-d is indeed everywhere, why does G-d need a dwelling place? Doesn’t G-d live among us wherever we are? I view most of the Torah as telling the story of the psychological and spiritual development of a people. The exodus story for me represents the adolescence of the Jewish nation. Having escaped from slavery, as a mixed multitude, we were not yet unified and had a very childlike understanding of G-d. We needed a G-d that we could see, so we built an idol, the golden calf. From this, G-d saw that we needed to be brought into a mature faith gradually. G-d gave us many signs and wonders, but as a people we were used to visual reminders of G-d’s presence. If we could not actually see God, at least we needed a concrete place to go to find G-d. We were not ready to find G-d in the beauty and wonder of nature because we had a tendency to rush into idolatry. At this stage of our spiritual development, we had to have a House for G-d. By having us build the dwelling (as we had actually made the idol), G-d allowed us to invest ourselves in its art and its design, but this time it was toward a place, a space for worship – as opposed to an object of worship. While we built the external structure for worship, we would also be building a spiritual connection to that place – making room for G-d both within our own souls and beyond.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his famous book, “The Sabbath,” talked about the fact that one of the problems with Temples and Tabernacles is that they can always be (and ultimately have always been) destroyed. The one thing that no person or ruler can take away from us is time. Shabbat, Heschel writes, is a permanent sanctuary in time. When observant people talk about Shabbat, they often talk about “making Shabbat.” Although Shabbat comes every week whether we observe it or not, it cannot be a sanctuary for us unless we “make” it so.
Over the past several weeks, I have had many conversations with students about what it means to observe Shabbat. Traditionally speaking there are 39 categories of “work” that you cannot do. These categories are, interestingly enough, derived from the activities necessary for building the portable sanctuary, the mishkan, in the wilderness. So, in order to build a sanctuary in time, we must stop building a sanctuary in space. Another way to look at the Shabbat commandment is that G-d did the work of creation of the world in seven days and then rested. Echoing G-d, we too, must stop creating in the world in order to create a sacred space in time.
What does that mean for us today, as Reform Jews? How do we create sacred places during the week and sacred spaces on Shabbat? Heschel wrote, “The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things in space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to the holiness of time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of Creation to the mystery of Creation, from the world of Creation to the creation of the world.” How will we achieve that goal?
In Parshat Terumah, G-d asks us to bring gifts, raw materials, to create a dwelling place for G-d. In bringing their financial and artistic gifts to the endeavor, the Jewish people bring their souls to the creation of a sanctuary. Having worked toward creating that sacred space, we are asked to mimic G-d’s actions and rest from the work of creation. We are asked to make Shabbat a complete and joyful day, a day different from our six days of work.
So Parshat Terumah offers us the chance to reflect upon what we will create this week and to consider how to make that creation holy. And in having created, we also turn our thoughts to making our rest separate and holy, too, a true “sanctuary in time.”
So my readers here is my question to you:
How do we, as modern Reform Jews, create that sanctuary?
What do you do on Shabbat to make it holy? What do you refrain from doing?