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February 24, 2023
4 Adar 5783
Parashat Terumah

Exodus 25:1 - 27:19


Dear Friends,

In the midst of a chaotic world, finding and creating a sense of order and purpose can be challenging. As it so often does, the Torah provides signposts for us -- a way to find balance, purpose, and meaning. But as they are signposts, there is work involved in finding them.

The Torah portion Terumah, Donation (Exodus 25:1 -27:19), takes place as Moses is up on Mount Sinai. It describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that is to be carried through the wilderness, in great detail. Most of us understand the Mishkan to be where the Divine will reside, but if we look closely at the text, it is clearly not described as a permanent residence.

The Mishkan and its importance can be seen from a number of different vantage points. Depending on who you are and what you believe, they may each resonate with you differently. The most straightforward interpretation of the import of the Mishkan is that it was the first time that this group of people, who had been slaves and had had little agency in their lives, were doing something productive on their own behalf. It demanded their skill and their generosity. This action of building the Mishkan together comes after all of their whining and complaining. We can compare it to children who may whine and complain to get what they want but are truly proud of themselves when they have accomplished something on their own. They are even prouder when it is a successful group effort where everyone pitched in.

The other vantage point to is to look at our relationship to the Divine and God’s view of us. There is a sense that we need structure. Many religious traditions in the world have built structures that reach upward, and some have been in the process of completion for hundreds of years. Is it a reflection of the divine need or our own as human beings needing a sense of object permanence?

Before the Mishkan is built, the Divine presence is described as a hovering presence. The Hebrew transitions to another of the many names of the Divine -- Shekhina. Today we understand Shekhina as the Divine presence among us and literally means dwelling or settling. Throughout our story the edifice does not guarantee the Divine’s presence among us. Rather, our Temples and holy places are locations where we can make the connection to the Divine.

Our texts remind us that the process of experiencing God’s presence is initiated by each of us. It is a voluntary interaction beginning with us, as we are so clearly reminded in this week’s Torah portion. The materials to be used in the building of the Mishkan are to be voluntary gifts “from every person whose heart so moves them” (Exodus 25:2) Creating sacred space begins within each of us.

We have a number of texts that remind us that the Divine, or that which is holy, is not be found in the most ornate setting. None does so more clearly than the story of Elijah, where the might of the Divine is referenced, “And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Adonai was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake—fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring voice.” (1Kings 19:11-12) The phrase “A soft murmuring voice," Kol Demama Daka, appears again in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer -- which we sing ever so softly, reminding us that God's presence may not be all thunder and lightning.

Ultimately the Mishkan houses the ten Commandments, but is it a residence for the Divine? Maybe the Mishkan, and all the other holy places we have built and come to, are places where we can find access to the Divine by opening our hearts and by responding to the stimuli that work for each of us. The heart becomes the sacred place where God may dwell. When we understand that possibility for all of its impermanence, we are sensitized not only to God’s presence but to one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

RabbiLinda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, October 3 2023 18 Tishrei 5784