D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Terumah)

Terumah: The Second Creation Story

Parashat Terumah begins the Torah’s lengthy preoccupation of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was situated at the center of the Israelites’ encampment on their journey through the wilderness. The Mishkan was where God’s presence, or Shechinah, dwelled among the people.

Numerous commentators have noted the connection between the building of the Mishkan and the creation narrative at the very beginning of the Torah. God instructs the Israelites to make the Mishkan just as God made the universe. The construction of the Mishkan, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, is “their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the Red Sea…Just as the universe began with an act of creation, so Jewish history (the history of a redeemed people) begins with an act of creation.” A series of verbal parallels underscores this connection:

The universe (Bereshit) The Mishkan (Shemot)
“And G-d made the sky” “They shall make Me a sanctuary”
“And G-d made the two large lights” “They shall make an ark”
“And G-d made the beasts of the earth” (1: 7, 16, 25) “Make a table”(25: 8, 9, 23)
“And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (1: 31) “Moses saw all the skilled work and behold they had done it; as G-d commanded it, they had done it.” (39:43)
“The heavens and earth and all of their array were completed.” (2:1) “All the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was completed” (39:32)
“And G-d completed all the work that He had done” (2:2) “And Moses completed the work” (40:33)
“And G-d blessed” (2:3) “And Moses blessed” (39:43)
“And sanctified it” (2:3) “And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels (40:9)

The use of the same verbs in both narratives suggests that making the Mishkan was for the Israelites what creating the universe was for God. And yet the contrast between these two creation stories is notable. God’s creation of the universe takes 34 verses in Genesis (chapter one plus the first three verses of chapter two), while the making of the Mishkan takes hundreds of verses and spans five Torah portions. The lengths of the narratives are in inverse proportion to the size of the project–our vast universe compared to a small and modest portable sanctuary! The answer, of course, is that “it is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult is for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, to make a home for God.” (Sacks)

The Mishkan is our first holy space. It is kadosh, holy, set apart. It serves as the prototype for the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as for the synagogue. We are enjoined to treat it and to behave in it with respect, and to care for it.

In these days, perhaps more so than ever before, we must consider our entire universe as kadosh, as holy space, as well. Our world is a precious gift. The natural order is what enables us to live and sustains us. We have to treat it with care and respect, as we do our Mishkans, our sanctuaries. Sadly this has not been the case, and we are beginning to see the costs of our neglect and failure to live up to our obligations. And alarmingly, our new president and administration speak and act as if they are oblivious to the consequences of our neglect.

Two creation stories. Two sacred spaces. One divinely created and vast. The other a human product and quite small. Both worthy of and dependent on our respect and care. All of us, and especially those with the power to decide whether our country will be part of the solution or part of the problem, would do well to heed the message of a powerful midrashic warning based on the first creation story: As the Holy One takes Adam through the Garden of Eden God tells him, “I created all My beautiful works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt and destroy it. For if you do, there is no one to make it right after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

Michael Swarttz, Schechter alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough and the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover.

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