Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Build it and they shall come / Parshat Terumah

It is time to clean out my office. There is too much clutter here. How many times, opening a closet or drawer, or simply looking around your home, have you said that? We live a very material existence. Stuff matters to us. Madonna, the Material Girl, explained it for herself this way: “You are attracted to men who have material things because that's what pays the rents and buys you furs. That's the security. That lasts longer than emotions.” 

 Two things jump out at me from that quote: first, rent and furs lie at opposite ends of a spectrum from need to luxury; Madonna says she needs both for security; and second, her claim that stuff outlasts emotion.

The Israelites have just received God’s Torah at Mt. Sinai, an immensely powerful spiritual experience. They immediately turn to constructing the Mishkan, a portable Tabernacle (or, if you prefer, Sanctuary) to hold tight to the Sinai experience and bring God, Whom they encountered at Sinai, with them wherever they go. Torah puts it this way: And let them make me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst (Exodus 25:8). Both elements of Madonna’s viewpoint are folded into the motivation and building of the Mishkan, but in a manner totally different from the way Madonna sees things.

 First, concerning stuff that is ordinary and stuff that is extraordinary, or the spectrum from need to luxury. Certainly, rent money is in the domain of necessity; no one would call housing a luxury. The Mishkan is constructed of a wide array of materials covering the spectrum from need to luxury. Acacia wood is used to create the structure, but the Mishkan and its accouterments are adorned with gold, silver, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious gems. We might stop and consider that, as the name of our parashah, Terumah, indicates, everything that went into building the Mishkan is a free-will gift, an expression of love, devotion, and gratitude; donations of precious metals, gems, and materials reflect the Israelites’ desire to maintain a close relationship with God. The security Madonna speaks of is, indeed, material, and derives from what is acquired, that is, what is supplied by others. The security afforded the Israelites by the Mishkan is relational and spiritual; as the word korban (“sacrifice”—the root means “near” or “close”) connotes: it draws them close to God. This security comes from giving generously, not receiving.

The second thing that jumps out at me from Madonna’s comment, far more striking than the first, is the claim that stuff “lasts longer than emotions.” The revered Bible scholar, Dr. Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), explains in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus that the purpose of the Tabernacle is to afford the Israelites the means to bring the Sinai experience with them in their wanderings, an ever-present symbol that evokes God’s presence. (In this regard, Mary Douglas, in her marvelous study of Vayikra, Leviticus as Literature, discusses how the sacred spaces and partitions of the Mishkan map onto Mt. Sinai.) In the equation between Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle, stuff and emotions are inextricably bound together. Cassuto wrote:

In order to understand the significance and purpose of the Tabernacle, we must realize that the children of Israel, after they had been privileged to witness the Revelation of God on Mount Sinai, were about to journey from there and thus draw away from the site of the theophany. So long as they were encamped in the place, they were conscious of God's nearness; but once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there were in their midst a tangible symbol of God's presence among them. It was the function of the Tabernacle (literally, 'Dwelling') to serve as such a symbol. Not without reason, therefore, does this section come immediately after the section that describes the making of the Covenant at Mount Sinai. The nexus between Israel and the Tabernacle is a perpetual extension of the bond that was forged at Sinai between the people and their God. The children of Israel, dwelling in tribal order at every encampment, are able to see, from every side, the Tabernacle standing in the midst of the camp, and the visible presence of the Sanctuary proves to them that just as the glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, so He dwells in their midst wherever they wander in the wilderness. This is the purpose of Scripture (25:8), when it states: 'And let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.' (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, p. 319.)

The Israelites build the Mishkan to keep the experience, emotions, and encounter of Sinai alive and to evoke God’s presence continuously—to insure that revelation continues.

R. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508, Portugal, Italy) asks why God needs a physical home, a question that paves the way to demonstrating that the Mishkan is about emotions and relationship:

Why did [God] command the construction of the Tabernacle, when [God] said, that I may dwell among them, as if God were an object demarcated and limited in space, which is the opposite of the truth?!... After all, God himself spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah: The heavens are My throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for Me, and what place could be My resting place? (Isaiah 66:1)

Malbim (Meir Leibush b. Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879, Russia) picks up Abravanel’s thread, explaining that the physical structure of the Mishkan is not an end in itself, but rather a model of the inner, spiritual sanctuary we should strive to construct in our hearts:

Each one of us needs to build for God a Mishkan in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing ourselves to become a Sanctuary for God and a dwelling place for God's glory… thus it should be for all generations: each person should build a Mishkan in the innermost recesses of the heart, and prepare an altar upon which to “offer up,” as it were, all aspects of oneself to God's service.

We have material needs just to survive. Most of us, however, possess far in excess of what we need to live. If, in the larger scheme of things, our focus is on stuff qua stuff—materialism for its own sake—we miss the opportunity to elevate our relationships, our spirits, our lives, to a level of greater meaning and purpose.

Talmud reminds us that blessing and meaning are beyond the material; they reside in the realm of meaning:

Blessing is not found in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, but only in something hidden from the eye. (T. Baba Metzia 42a)

I managed to clean up my office, but much remains that you might consider clutter: gifts from students and congregants, souvenirs from family trips, photos of my kids, and a few art projects they made in elementary school. While little of this has great monetary value, to me they are priceless because they hold meaning and evoke memories. Yet even were I to lose them, the emotions would last.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Nice one! I like the outfit of the characters. Wish i could do the same thing too but im not that techie.i like the outfit of “from farmer to warden”.. really interesting. dave burke