Sunday, February 19, 2012

A wilderness love affair / Parshat Terumah

When my children were young, I reveled in making their Halloween costumes each year. It was an act of love to work with fabric, yarn, buttons, glue, and hardware to transform them into a frog, or Piglet, a wizard, or Alice in Wonderland. The more time and effort I poured into it, the happier I was imagining their delight in wearing the costumes.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites bring gifts to build the Tabernacle. They bring the most remarkable things:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, 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. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:1-8)
The Israelites’ donations are gifts of love, as were the costumes I made my children, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Israelites transformed their gifts into an ark with its cover and cherubim, a finely crafted lampstand of gold, and the Mishkan (Wilderness tabernacle) with its many layers of coverings. The Mishkan was a work of love.

But for the Rabbis, it was far more than a token of love. It was a bridal chamber. How? The Rabbis expressed the relationship between God and Israel in many ways including king/people, shepherd/flock, parent/children. But in the deepest recesses of their souls, the Rabbis envisioned a love relationship between God and Israel -- because that is the deepest relationship we experience in our lives.

In the midrash Mekhilta, R. Yose imagines that Mt. Sinai is the site of Israel’ wedding to God:
Rabbi Yose said: Yehudah used to expound The Lord came from Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2). Do not read it this way, but rather read it “The Lord came to Sinai.” I, however, do not accept this interpretation, but rather, The Lord came from Sinai to welcome Israel as a bridegroom goes forth to meet the bride. (Mekhilta, Bachodesh to 19:17)
The Mishkan, then, is where the married couple set up housekeeping. For our Sages, it is a place of love and consummation. And so we find this fascinating passage in which the son of R. Yehudah haNasi is eager to marry his bride and consummate the marriage, but embarrassed before his father about these feelings. His father, R. Yehudah haNasi,, assures him that God felt the same way:
He [Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] went and planned for his son’s [marriage] into the family of R. Yose b. Zimra. He [R. Yose] agreed [to support his son financially] so that he could go and study for twelve years in the House of Study. They passed [the bride] before [Rabbi’s son]. He said: let it be six years. They passed her before him again. He said: let me consummate the marriage [now] and then I will go. [R. Yose] was ashamed before his father. [Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] said to him: My son, you have your Maker’s inclination! At first it is written, You will bring them and plant them in Your own Mountain, [the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary (mikdash), O Lord, that Your hands established] (Exodus 15:17). But then it is written, Let them make me a sanctuary (mikdash) that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). (Ketubot 62b)
As Rabbi Yehudah haNasi reads Exodus 15:17, God initially intends that the marriage to Israel will be consummated in the Temple in Jerusalem -- but that will not be built for many generations. Then God has a change of heart (just like the son of R. Yehudah haNasi who does not want to leave his bride for 12 years, or even 6 years before consummating the marriage). Exodus 25:8 tells us that God instructs Israel to build a Mikdash (sanctuary) in the Wilderness so God can “dwell among them.”

Our ancestors expressed their love for God by bringing gifts to the Tabernacle. How do we express our love for God? Or do we even speak in terms of love?

We seem to have lost the religious poetry of such imagery, and the emotions it conjures. How many of us would think of a synagogue and the study house as a bridal chamber? How many of us would speak about God or prayer using sexual metaphors? Perhaps because we live in a society still strongly influenced by Calvinism, we have lost the poetic magic of our ancestors. We think of ourselves as far more sophisticated than our ancestors, but a soulful and creative imagination is a sign of sophistication, too.

Love is to be celebrated. Love connotes commitment to a relationship, intensity of feeling, mutual learning. We understand it for our relationships with people. Can we bring that experience to our relationship with God -- and all God’s creation? What would it look like to truly love God and God’s creation?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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