Parshat Terumah illustrates the quintessential problem of studying Torah in the modern age: what are we to believe? Terumah describes the mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) in such fine detail that many people have constructed models on the basis of the description in Exodus. Every part of the structure and apparatus is delineated, right down to the sockets that connect the planks of the Tabernacle, and the colors of the threads in the tapestry that covered the Holy of Holies. Yet scholars debate whether there actually was a Wilderness Tabernacle, or whether what we read in Terumah is an imaginary retrojection of the Temple in Jerusalem.
So we might ask: what value is there in spending our time exploring the minutiae of the mishkan if it hasn’t existed for more than 1200 years and perhaps never really existed at all? Abravanel (1437–1508) explains:
Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Genesis 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.
Torah is sacred scripture. Rather than asking, “Did it happen?” when we cannot discern the answer with certainty, or most likely the answer is no, is far less helpful than asking, “What does it mean? What can we learn from this?” So my question is: What does the description of the mishkan teach us about how to live our lives?
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelites: take/accept (ikchu) for Me gifts; from every person whose heart so moves him. And this is the contribution (v’zot ha-terumah) you shall take/accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yards, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense, lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (Exodus 25:107)
The verb in the first two verses is ikchu, which is usually translated “accept” but which actually means “take.” The classical commentators noticed this. Nachmanides, for example, acknowledges the literal meaning of ikchu and tells us:
According to the true interpretation, v’zot (“this” in v. 2) refers to the Shekhinah and the wisdom provided by it, as when God said to Solomon, Because you want this (zot) and have not asked for wealth, property, and glory… but you have asked for the wisdom and the knowledge to be able to govern My people… (2 Chronicles 1:11).
Nachmanides (1194-1270) tells us that “this” in our parashah can be understood to refer to the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world. He notices that the wording is peculiar. God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, but then describes what the Israelites are to do, not what Moses is to say to them. He reads the verse this way:
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelites. They will take/accept for Me [as a] gift…
Nachmanides then explains “from them” by citing a marvelous passage from midrash Exodus Rabbah, which reads “take/accept for Me” as “take/accept Me”: It is not that the Israelites bring donations to the Tabernacle, but that the Tabernacle is the locus where God gifts Israel with the Shekhinah. The midrash tells us:
“The Holy One told Israel, ‘I have sold you My Torah, and I, as it were, am included in the sale. The gift will be Mine and I will be with it, as in My beloved I mine and I am his (Song of Songs 2:16).’” (Exodus Rabbah 33:1)
Abravanel got it right: there is much to glean from Torah that seems not to apply to us today. The mishkan is only superficially “where God lives” — everything lives within God, and the mishkan is the place where the Israelites come to be reminded of, and experience, God within. The in-dwelling presence of God (the Shekhinah) dwells in them. We all need reminders of our holiness and our potential to sanctify the world around us. It’s hard to keep that in the forefront of our minds when life is not pure unalloyed joy, but rather punctuated with chores and challenges, pressures and deadlines, sickness and conflicts.
Leonard Cohen captured the challenge beautifully in a verse of his famous song, Hallelujah, popularized by the movie Shrek and recordings by Jeff Buckley and KD Lang:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
The mishkan was the place where a person could come and say: I did my best, but it didn’t amount to much; but that doesn’t diminish my value and potential. It was the place a person could “feel” and “touch” God because the mishkan was so tangible: a place of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Even with all one’s imperfections, foibles, and failings, the mishkan provided a place one could stand “in the presence of God,” sing Hallelujah, and praise God — the holy spark within each soul — with a full heart, and recapture that sense of the Shekhinah dwelling within.
It is entirely human and natural to need something concrete to remind us of what is intangible: the divine spark and sacred potential within. Do you have a place, or memory, or song, or quotation that is your mishkan, transporting you to where you can spiritually stand in God’s presence, recognizing God’s presence in you? Is there someone who is your mishkan? Is there something you do that revitalizes your soul and reminds you of your value? Visit your mishkan as often as possible, as often as you need. Abravanel was right — Torah is a book of “elevated wisdom and divine teaching.” It speaks to us eternally.
(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman