Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Y. Gavriel A. Levi Ansara finds deep spiritual meaning in the instructions given to Moses for building the Tabernacle.
Parashat Terumah opens with G-d speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai and commanding him in meticulous detail regarding the construction of the Mishkan, or “tabernacle,” the portable dwelling place of G-d’s presence that the Israelites could promptly assemble, dismantle, transport, and then reassemble during their sojourn in the desert.
G-d tells Moses: “Daber el Bnai Yisrael veyikchu li terumah me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu et terumati./ Speak to the Children of Israel and have them bring Me an offering. Take My offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give.” (Exodus 25:2) Hashem continues by commanding Moses to acquire fifteen materials for the construction of the Mishkan — each item a gift or offering (terumah), and each to be brought by someone “whose heart impels him.” The offerings include gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, and animal skins; acacia wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. This lengthy description of the offerings necessary for the Mishkan emphasizes the multiplicity and diversity of color and material, a symbolic acknowledgment that sacred community cannot exist without embracing the unique experiences and identities of all Jews.
The glaring contrast between the luxurious aesthetics describing the Mishkan and the profound displacement of our people is intentional. It is at precisely this juncture in our history that our people achieved what many Jewish sages characterize as the height of human achievement. The Mishkan becomes the standard from which melachah, (constructive activities prohibited on Shabbat and holidays) and thereby major halachot (Jewish laws) concerning Shabbat, are derived.
Why does the construction of the Mishkan occur during this period of strife and disaffection? What motivating force drives the desire to give offering to Hashem at the height of exile? It is the same drive that propels gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, genderqueer, and intersex (GLB/TGI) Jewish refugees from oppressive communal environments to renew the empty realms of their hearts by turning to Hashem, transforming derelict emotional landscapes into the Binyan Adei Ad (everlasting home) that their souls crave.
While a superficial glance at Parashat Terumah may give us the misleading impression that it is simply a verbose list of materials and building instructions, these lavish descriptions serve a profound purpose: to remind us that even in the midst of the most severe and abiding wilderness, we not only continue to be bound by G-d’s commandments, but often find ourselves in greater need of them than before. Two of the most powerful verses in this parasha are G-d telling Moses “Ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham/ They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) and “Veno’adeti lecha sham/ I will commune with you there.” (Exodus 25:22) This entire parasha is a prescription for allowing the Jewish people to receive Hashem’s tender loving presence during hard times!
The weekly maqaam (a type of melody) we use in several Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) traditions provides us with melodies and tunes to express the main theme and emotional state of each parasha. The maqaam for Parashat Terumah, Maqaam Hoseni, (hosn, meaning beauty or splendor) focuses on the expression of beauty. This maqaam allows us to transcend the often bleak situations of our physical realities by evoking the lush qualities of the Mishkan, thereby emphasizing the rich possibilities of our spiritual lives. This message of transcendence resonates powerfully with many Jews who struggle to reconcile traditional Jewish observance with self-affirmation as GLB/TGI people.
In my outreach work as an observant Jew, I receive frequent phone calls from people who feel abandoned by G-d, whose inner emotional landscapes invoke images of that same wilderness in which the Israelites found themselves. The psychological “homes” of these callers have been devastated by the rejections and aspersions they have received from their communities. While other callers report unexpected, positive responses and affirmation from their rabbis, loved ones, and community members, it is the former group, whose spiritual needs seem most dire, with which I am most concerned.
Cast out of familiar territory, these Jews often find themselves wandering in a spiritual desert. More liberal religious environments fail to satisfy many of them, because they crave the intensity and lifestyle immersion of traditional Jewish experience. Yet returning to their previous religious environments would require negation of self, disconnection from the very spiritual nakedness and sincerity that form the basis for a meaningful relationship with G-d. So these Jews find themselves adrift, traveling far from past sources of religious nourishment in search of a place in which they can integrate their psychosocial and spiritual selves toward the achievement of wholeness and well-being.
Many of the GLB/TGI Jews who contact me have renounced religious observance altogether, expressing anger at G-d for the bigotry they have experienced in Jewish communities. Yet in Parashat Terumah, Hashem makes the potent assertion that it is precisely during moments of rejection and despair that prayer, relationship with the Divine, and spiritual observances are essential to restoring our dignity. The rage and pain that so many people express often deepens their sense of isolation. Yet it is not Hashem who has spurned them; it is not Hashem who has cruelly propelled them from the sheltering warmth of their social networks. The harmful actions of other people are not direct statements of Divine Will, regardless of assertions to that effect by those who inflict emotional and spiritual damage upon others in the guise of religiosity. In Parashat Terumah, G-d offers these embittered outcasts the gift of a safe space, filled with luxurious beauty and sustenance, to nourish them as they journey in search of places where their values as GLB/TGI people are not pitted against their devotion to Jewish observance.
This crossing is arduous enough that we cannot afford to take any opportunities for spiritual enrichment for granted. Parashat Terumah provides us with an empowered model for survival precisely because both our traditional observance and our GLB/TGI experiences are integral to our existence. It may be a Friday night Shabbat gathering in a small living room containing a handful of similarly devoted friends, or the quiet peace of lighting candles alone in your kitchen with your same-gender bashert. It may be laying tefillin at home in the morning as a trans man who finds himself unable to pass in a small community where everyone knows his history, or lighting candles to welcome the Shabbat Queen as a trans woman carrying on the legacy of her foremothers. These simple acts of affirmation define us in the same way that the Mishkan defined our spiritual ancestors in the desert. To my fellow travelers in this struggle for spiritual affirmation, I urge you to turn toward Hashem, to allow yourselves to receive the awaiting bounty of your own private Mishkan.