February 28, 2020
From the spiritual to the ordinary, from the metaphysical to the concrete, this week’s Torah reading, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), takes us from the extraordinary event at Mt. Sinai to the simplicity of everyday life. It is one thing to be overwhelmed by lightning and thunder, to be awe-struck by the voice of God and to see Moses, the leader ascend into the cloud and disappear for forty days and nights. It is another, to wake up and find that we still have to care for our loved ones, collect the manna for our daily bread, and continue to feel responsible for the health and welfare of the family and the community.
To bring home that point, the Torah swiftly turns its attention to the building of a traveling sanctuary, the Mishkan, the place where the priests will serve the people, where the nation can find redemption, and where the soul of Israel can commune with God. The Mishkan will act as a bridge between the world below and the world on high. At its core, however, the daily sacrifices, the pageantry of the priesthood with their sacred clothing, the assembly of people praying for forgiveness, and the gifts brought in gratitude and worship were right here in our place.
The presence of God will find a place in this earthbound sanctuary, but as the Torah tells, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (25:8) No sanctuary can contain God’s presence, of course. Numerous commentators have already pointed out that God will dwell not “in it,” meaning the tabernacle itself, but “among them” within the spirit and the soul of the People of Israel. But how does that come about? It is created through prayer, through sacrifice, through community. Perhaps all the pageantry together with the assembly of the people will bring about that sense of God’s presence.
But Rabbi Tarphon teaches us in a Midrash, “Work is noble, for the Holy One Blessed Be God would not exhibit the Divine Presence to Israel until they worked, as it says, ‘build me a sanctuary, that I will dwell among them.’” Rabbi Tarfon read the verse as conditional: when you build, then I will appear. And not before. It is a reminder of a film, “Field of Dreams.” Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) walks among the cornstalks of his farm toward the end of the day. The clouds allow a stray shot of sunlight to focus on the field and a voice is heard proclaiming “If you build it he will come.” In the movie, the voice refers to the construction of a baseball field somewhere among the acres of land which Ray works. It would become a sanctuary for great players of the past, a tribute to their skills and devotion to the game, though one of the players emerges to repent for what may have been an egregious personal failure.
The players are long dead but their spirit, and, yes, their presence as told in W. P. Kinsella’s novel magically appear. But Kinsella had to build it first, had to believe in the dream and, then, embraced by the love of his family he brought it about. And then only after the field was constructed do the old time players appear, sanctifying, as it were, by their presence, the dwelling place of this all-American pastime. More however, the construction of the baseball diamond invested this plot of Iowa farm land and those who visited with awe and wonder.
Likewise, Rabbi Tarphon recognized in what he saw as this conditional verse, that all the gifts of gold and silver, all the colored yarns and tanned ram skins, the acacia wood and oil for lighting, the aromatic incense and precious gems would not constitute the sanctuary until they were properly collected. It was the construction itself, the labor involved in building this sanctuary which brought God’s presence–not into the sanctuary, but into the people who labored so hard to bring the sanctuary into existence.
It was the work itself that inspired and infused the people with the presence of God, not the Mishkan. The Mishkan was but a means to galvanize the soul of Israel and create that intimacy which can be felt when we create something sacred and lasting. God does not dwell in the sanctuary, but within those who constructed it, who labored over it, who presented their gifts. With a generous and open heart the people established a place where the past can be celebrated and the future become dreams of aspiration. When we build a family with love and devotion, when we create an institution ready to serve its congregation, when we apply our skills with all our heart as a gift to community, there is something that is felt that transcends satisfaction. The feeling becomes holy, sacred and the presence of God blesses the works of our hands, as God dwells within us.