Parashat T'rumah

Exodus 25:1-27:19
Triennial Reading: 25:1-25:40
February 9, 2008 / 3 Adar I 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Senior Director, Community Development, JTS.

It was a demonstration of will; nothing short of unbridled desire to succeed led the Giants to their Superbowl victory over a nearly perfect Patriots team that will be remembered favorably by history. What made this game spectacular, more than any other in recent history, was how clear that manifestation of will was.

I employ religious language here intentionally, you can be sure. And while we may sometimes walk the thin line of idolatry when referring to sporting giants, there is no denying that our collective love of great moments like this past Sunday are imbued with a passion that is truly religious in nature. When Eli Manning, somehow channeling Houdini, slipped from the pile of the Patriots' defensive line to set up the Giants touchdown in the last moments of the fourth quarter, it was nothing short of a religious moment.

What the Giants come to teach us this week is that human will is sometimes much more apparent than divine will. With Parashat T’rumah, our weekly reading of the Torah takes a dramatic shift. After the engaging stories of Genesis, slavery and redemption through the Exodus, and the theophany on Sinai, we now turn to the almost absurd details of the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will not only accompany the Israelites through their wanderings, but occupy most of the remaining columns of Exodus.

Commentators struggle with the meaning of the mishkan, its role in the people’s relationship with God, and how to wade through the details and measurements of its construction. Is it not a bit odd that a God who is attempting to encourage the people to think beyond the physical suddenly commands a home? “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). Just a few chapters ago we read of God’s desire to break the Israelites from their habit of needing physicality in their worship. Could a home situated on prime real estate at the center of the people really be what God is looking for? We cannot help but wonder what the Torah is conveying as God’s will in building the mishkan.

The answers commentators provide offer some guidance. For some, the mishkan created a link to their recent immediate experience with God. The experience of revelation had a limit, and the concern was that as the people journeyed further from Sinai, their connection to God would diminish. Don Isaac Abarbanel posits this when he comments, “God’s intention with the construction of the mishkan was to contest the idea that God had forsaken the earth.” As the people journeyed through the wilderness, they needed reassurance that God was present in their lives. In this sense, the mishkan provided a locale for God, a divine pied-à-terre, if you will. Seforno understands the mishkan as a divine address as well but identifies it as the spiritual address for the people’s prayers and service to God. We have adopted this even in our lives in directing our prayers toward Jerusalem, and more specifically, the site of the Temple, the successor to the mishkan.

With his aversion to anthropomorphism, Maimonides cannot accept that God commands the construction of the mishkan for a dwelling, but rather as a place for God’s presence. In The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains terms employed by the Torah; on the idea of God dwelling, he states: “In every case in which [dwelling] is stated in reference to God, it is used in the sense of the permanence of the Shekhinah—God’s presence—in a place” (I:25). With Maimonides, the mishkan serves as a spiritual conduit to God, but not as a physical dwelling. When the people needed to feel the immanence of God’s presence, there was the mishkan. In this sense, there was a spiritual reaction elicited that bordered on the physiological.

There are many synagogues even today that inspire this feeling—and serve as that conduit. However, I cannot imagine that God intended for us to restrict our relationship to the walls of our synagogues. Again we return to, and question the purpose of, this idea of limiting interaction with the divine to the defined space of the mishkan.

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, reads the opening of our parashah in its entirety to decipher the will of God in the building of the mishkan. He cannot read the command to build the mishkan so that God will dwell among the people without its preface of the command for the people to offer gifts: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exod. 25:2). It is the responsibility of each individual to come forward and assist in the building. The Sefat Emet writes,

Material things have no will. And everything must have a will—that is essential. This proves that these things depend upon humanity who has a will. And with this will humanity can incline every thing towards God . . . This is the meaning of the verse: "let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them"—among each individual (T’rumah 5633).

By changing the understanding of the command, the Sefat Emet places humanity at the fulcrum; the achievement of the divine will rests with our ability to make the most of our raw materials. The responsibility rests with us. It is through our actions that the inanimate has the potential to fulfill a divine will.

However, if the mishkan is a vehicle through which we may enact the divine will, we still seek to understand how to do that. How do we act to enable the presence of God to dwell among us? We read what may be a clue in the companion haftarah:

"With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel" (I Kings 6:12-13).

The intention involved in pairing the Torah reading with this selection is obvious. When does God dwell among the people? When we live a life devoted to mitzvot. We must read the two together, and learn a lesson from the mishkan. Like the raw materials of the mishkan, mitzvot have no will. Just as simply building the mishkan did not bring the presence of God, so too simple observance will be ineffective. What will bring the presence of God is our intentional unbridled will to bring the presence of God into our lives through the engagement of mitzvot.

Imagine if we approached mitzvot with the passion of the Giants this past Sunday?

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.