Parashat Terumah 5783

22 February 2023 – 1 Adar 5783

Rabbi Monique Mayer


A few years ago, I re-outfitted my office in Bristol.

It was time. I had struggled to do my rabbinic work in a cramped room with inadequate furnishings for too long.  Initially, the room had a table and a tall-grey file cabinet, along with open-ended, wall-mounted shelves which were so slick that a few times a month a bookend would slide off the end, followed by any number of books from my library. Adding two small bookcases and replacing the table with a computer desk barely made a difference. There was simply no way to have a functioning workspace while trying to squeeze in several hundred books, stacks of papers, and bags and boxes of supplies for various Jewish holidays into 7’ x 10’  room without a complete overhaul.

Finally, after several refusals by my husband to nip into IKEA (because no one just “nips into” IKEA), he relented on my birthday. Armed with measurements of my office, we entered the labyrinth of home furnishings, and emerged over three hours later having successfully ordered what I needed. Two days later, the Ikea flatpacks were delivered to the synagogue and while two generous volunteers tackled the bookcases, I set to work on the two, double-drawer file cabinets which would be the legs of my desk. Opening the box, I was stunned but undeterred by the number of parts. It took me more than three hours to put those two small file cabinets together—almost as long as it took the volunteers to assemble three tall bookcases, put them up, and anchor them to the wall.

Well, it was worth it. After spending the rest of the day placing all my books on the appropriate shelves and getting my files in order, I finally felt that I could breathe. I hung pictures and objects that reminded me of my purpose. Instead of being overwhelmed by clutter and chaos, I could see all my books…I could find things, and my mind was clear because my office was neat. I began looking forward to sitting down in a space where I could truly study and reflect and concentrate on more than the minutiae of emails and papers.

It’s difficult to think about more than the details in this week’s parasha. It begins with: Vayedabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor: dabeir el bnei yisrael vayik’chu li t’rumah: The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts—immediately followed by a list of acceptable gifts: gold and silver and copper, coloured wool yarns and fine spun linen, acacia wood, animal skins, precious stones, oil and spices. After this list of suitable donations, God gives Moses instructions for building the sanctuary. Very detailed instructions. In fact, very much like Ikea flat-pack instructions, only with words. Every ring, plank, pole, every item of furniture, including the ark itself is described in painstaking detail – so much so that we might want to skip the section and read something more interesting. But if we use our imaginations to picture even a portion of what is being described: fabrics woven in vivid patterns of blue, purple and crimson; purpose-built gold fittings and furnishings, the smell of incense, the bread displayed on the table, the ark of the Covenant overlaid in gold and topped by golden cherubim. Even in our 21st century minds, the vision can be staggering. But why all the detail? and why does it matter?

It matters because this was not a design for any human abode; this was a design for God’s house. We read in verse 25:8, “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”—And they shall make for me a mikdash, and I shall dwell among them. The Hebrew word, mikdash comes from the root meaning “holy”. A mikdash is a holy place. And the Hebrew v’shachanti, “I shall dwell”, is from the root shochen, meaning “abide” or “dwell”. It is the same root from which we get the word, mishkan—dwelling place, and the same root from which is derived shechinah, the indwelling presence of God. The master design conveyed to Moses from the beginning of this parasha is for a home befitting the Divine Presence. No expense was to be spared, no shortcuts made—only the most beautiful and best materials and construction for Adonai according to God’s expert instructions.

Yet, reading this in a post-Temple Judaism, the details in the text lose their relevance because our notions of God have changed from a God of place to a God of presence. God transcends place; God’s presence is everywhere. So then, what meaning might there be in this parashah for us?

Returning to the beginning of the reading, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring God gifts, but not as tzedakah, not out of obligation. Me’eit kol ish asheir yidvenu libo tik’chu et terumati.”—Tell the Israelites to bring me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every one whose heart so moves them”. This generosity of heart is key; and the mishkan can serve as a powerful metaphor for us. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (z’’l), head of the Mir Yeshivah in the mid-20th century, taught that, “the Sages have described each and every person as a miniature Mishkan, in which the Divine Presence dwells. The focus of the Mishkan was the Torah, embodied in the ark containing the tablets. The housing for this ark was a Mishkan erected upon the twin pillars of lishmah, purity of motive, and nedivat halev, generosity of heart. A person can make herself into a Mishkan when her essence is Torah and the cornerstones of her deeds are purity of motive and generosity of heart.” [1]

This parashah issues us a challenge to make ourselves into a sacred space for our souls, so that God may dwell within us. How do we do that? What would making ourselves into a sacred space—a mishkan look like?

Firstly, we need to develop an habit of generosity, giving to others just as the Israelites gave in support of the mishkan.

Secondly, just as the Israelites took great care with the materials and building of the mishkan in the desert, we need to use the same care with regards to ourselves, respecting our bodies—the housing of our souls which are made in God’s image. When we don’t take proper care of ourselves, the foundations of our mishkan erode. By making sure we eat right, getting enough sleep and exercise, taking care of the outside of our bodies, we are caretakers of our mishkan selves. And we can extend that idea further by changing our living spaces and our work spaces into places that nurture and honour our souls.

May each of us make ourself into a mishkan, a suitable home for the Divine presence.

[1][1] Sichos Mussar/Reb Chaim’s Discourses: The Shmuessen of the Mir Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, p. 133


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