Creating A Personal Sanctuary


From the opening lines of Terumah, we immediately realize that an important shift has taken place in the biblical narrative. Stories of family, slavery, plagues, liberation, and Sinai’s Revelation are absent. Instead, the focus of this week’s parsha (and what will take up the bulk of the rest of the parshiot in Shemot) will be the design and construction of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary-Tabernacle that that will accompany the Israelites through years of wandering.

In fact, with the exception of the story of the Golden Calf, the Book of Exodus going forward is dedicated to the nuts and bolts of Judaism: the construction of this Tabernacle and the people’s involvement in building it. (How ironic because it takes the stereotype of Jews not working with their hands and turns it on its head).

As any seasoned fundraiser will tell you, you don’t begin construction without funds in hand! So God tells Moshe that B’nai Yisrael (the Israelites) must contribute to the building of the Mishkan. One question immediately pops out: Why would God want to encourage B’nai Yisrael to see God as dwelling in one singular place? One would think that the Sinai experience would have been enough to sustain the Jewish connection to God in their travels. And yet God understands human nature. God recognizes that the Sinai moment was a spiritual high, the absolute pinnacle for the Jewish people, but would not be enough to sustain their sense of connection. Even the most spiritually special moments may not last, and God understood that the Mishkan — something hands-on — was needed to remind us that we are a nation of priests and a holy people, connected to God.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 5:32 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 25:1-27:19
Haftorah: I Kings 5:26-6:13
Havdalah: 6:31 p.m.

The commentators provide another way to understand Terumah, explaining that the Torah is not written in linear fashion; this parsha was really a response to the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moshe in Ki Tissa is late in returning with the Two Tablets, the Israelites think Moshe abandoned them. They are not Jewishly mature, filled with faith, but fall back on a pagan symbol to represent their closeness to God in Moshe’s absence.

Those responsible for the heit ha’egel (the sin of the Golden Calf) will be punished, but here in Terumah what we encounter is God’s understanding that the Jewish people need reassurance that God has not forsaken them, that God ‘s Shechinah (presence) is ever-present. In fact, within a few verses of the parsha’s opening, we’re told, “they shall make a Sanctuary for Me and I will dwell among them” [Ex. 25:8]. The Rabbis note the use of the word “b’tocham,” to dwell “among them,” rather than to dwell “within it” (the Mishkan). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the verse by noting that our obligation is to sanctify ourselves; when that happens, God will dwell among us.

Here then is one of the most central ideas of Judaism. It isn’t enough just to build beautiful edifices and meet God there. We have to become holy; obligated to behave in a certain fashion when we are outside the formal “resting place” of God ‘s presence. This, then, is the obligation, the opportunity to strive for holy living; the ability to act B’Tzelem Elokim, as we were created in the image of God.

It was Rabbeinu Bachya, 13th-14th-century Kabbalist and biblical commentator, who summed up how our “acting holy” can come to be. He points out that the acronym for shittim (the acacia wood used to construct the table, altar and ark) is made up of the words shalom, tovah, yeshua and mechilah (peace, goodness, salvation and forgiveness). He explained that the good things that occurred to the Jewish people came to them through the conduit of the holy vessels and furnishings of the Tabernacle. But what about now, he asks, when the Temple, the successor to the Mishkan, no longer stands? He explains, citing the Talmud Chagiga 27a: “Now that the Temple is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through their own table.” What then will “atone” for us and bring us the blessings we wish to have bestowed on us? Our dining or kitchen tables! Because if we welcome those who are hungry, those in need of hachnasat orchim, home hospitality, those in need of friendship, protection and community, then our “tables” truly do become the personal “altars,” the personal “sanctuaries” that bring us blessing.

By behaving in this manner, we not only receive the blessing of welcoming in those in need, but of inviting God in, to dwell among us. 

Dr. Adena Berkowitz is scholar in residence at Kol HaNeshamah, co-author of “Shaarei Simcha, Gates of Joy Mini Siddur” and author of the forthcoming “The User Friendly Family Haggadah.”