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Torah Commentary
T'rumah (February 25, 2012)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

LAST WEEK’s PARASHAH, Mishpatim, ended with Moses once again ascending Mount Sinai at the behest of God. This week, we read of the explicit instructions Moses is given for the construction of the portable Tabernacle (Mishkan). In fact, aside from the forthcoming Golden Calf incident, the balance of the book of Exodus involves the rendering and execution of this complex blueprint.

Every capital project requires funding, and thus, this week’s parashah opens with God instructing Moses to solicit the people for voluntary contributions in order to build the Mishkan. But, it begs the following questions: If God was able to provide manna in the wilderness, why not just provide all of the necessary offerings? If God created the heavens and earth, why not just create the Mishkan?

The name of this portion (T’rumah) often is translated as “offerings,” “gifts” or “donations.” However, the word literally means “to elevate.” In ancient times, people offered up their gifts to deities. The implication here is also that through these contributions, the people of Israel continued to be forged into a cohesive community and a partnership with God.

Following a detailed outline of acceptable, appropriate offerings comes one of the most profoundly simple expressions to be found in the Torah. In the Hebrew, it is a five-word verse, although it requires considerable more words to express in English. Generally, Exodus 25:8 is translated as: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The phrase often is found inside of most American synagogues, including our Emanu-El. It served as the inspirational subtext for our Sanctuary Restoration Campaign.

The Hebrew is far more expressive than the translation. The word “sanctuary” (mikdash) is derived from the same root as the word for “holy” (kadosh). It implies not only a designated sacred space but also a place that is sanctified through rituals performed within its boundaries and in which those performing the rituals experience holiness. The word expressing “that I may dwell” (v’shachanti) has at its essence the Rabbinic term for the Divine Comforting Presence (Shechinah). The sentence closes with the concept of “among them” rather than “within it.” This sanctuary is not being built as a home for God, which would be difficult to reconcile with the concept of an omnipresent divinity. Instead, it is to be a place where people — as individuals and as a collective — experience holiness.

Biblical commentators agree that this concept of experiencing holiness provides a solution to the very perplexing challenge of maintaining the people’s connection to holiness beyond Mount Sinai and Revelation. Rashi, for one, posits that the chronology of biblical events is not always reflected accurately in the sequence of chapters. (I’ve often thought that God’s commandment to build the Mishkan would make more sense following rather than preceding the Golden Calf, but I was not the editor!) In many ways, Temple Emanu-El echoes the Mishkan. Both were conceived to be magnificently adorned through vivid colors, elegant fabrics, polished metals and rich woods. Both were made possible through meaningful contributions from the community. And, both are hallowed through the experiences within.

But, back to T’rumah…Although this parashah is focused on the physical, there is a strong undercurrent of the spiritual found here. How, precisely, is God to dwell among them/among us? In his work The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to Judaism as a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. He calls the Sabbath our great cathedral, and he characterizes Jewish rituals as architecture in time. I would propose that the Mishkan and our Emanu-El sanctuary are not merely physical sacred spaces but also catalysts for our spiritual transformation through the experience of sacred moments. T’rumah reminds us that we have many opportunities to elevate ourselves if only we recognize and avail ourselves of them.


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