Terumah (Exodus, 25:1-27:19) inaugurates a narrative cycle devoted to the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile sanctuary that anchors the Israelites’ camp as they traverse the desert, en route to The Promised Land. In that context, the Parashah includes what could be, from the perspective of its authors, the most important verse in the Torah — וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם Ve`asu li miqdash veshachanti betocham,”Make a sanctuary for me and I will reside in their midst (Exod 25:8).” This pasuk, and the Pentateuch’s conception of the Mishkan, is predicated upon several connected core beliefs; (1) God has a physical presence with weight and mass, often referred to as the Kavod. (2) YHWH’s Kavod can be manifest on earth, in the human realm, in one place at a time, as illustrated in the previous chapter; “YHWH’s Kavod resided on Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:16).” (3) We benefit from God’s covenantal favor only when God resides among us. (4) God’s presence should be housed in a specially designed structure whose holiness and habitability must be constantly and scrupulously maintained. The same ethos is echoed in Terumah’s Haftarah (1 Kings 5:26-6:13), which recounts the building of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem. The reading concludes “I will reside among the Israelites and I will not abandon my people Israel.”
Today, odds are that if we believe in God, we don’t necessarily imagine God as having a tangible presences that is constrained to a single space, natural or constructed. How then do we uphold the relevance of our Parashah as a piece of “living Torah” rather than marginalizing it as an antiquated document with an outmoded theology? The Mishnah offers a solution for a post-Temple world. “When two people sit with words of Torah, God’s presence abides with them (Avot 2:2).” For the Sages, holiness is about people, their actions and commitments, not about a building made of precious wood and metal. I conclude then with two questions for us here and now — What makes a place sacred? How do we find room for God in our lives and communities?
David Bernat, PhD ’72, Schechter Alumni Parent, Executive Director, Synagogue Council of Massachusetts