Parashat Terumah

God's Home

The Tabernacle raises the question of whether one can experience God anywhere, or only in one specific place.

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Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering; of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering. (Exodus 25:1)

Among the 613 mitzvot (commandments), that of donating precious possessions for the building of the Tabernacle in Parashat Terumah stands out for its element of volunteerism, which places it outside of the usually clear-cut nature of halakhah (Jewish law). A donation for building the mishkan (Tabernacle) not only isn't compulsory, but it becomes a donation worthy of God's approval only when it's spurred by a spirit of freedom and generosity of heart: every man that giveth it willingly.

What is the Mishkan?

What is the mishkan, and what about it demands this act of pure volition? The portable precursor to the Temple is roofless; like a tent in the desert, it's covered only by goatskins. Its interior is more elaborate, with the aron ha-brit (Ark of the Covenant), luchot ha-brit (Tablets of the Covenant), menorah, shulchan (table holding shew-bread), golden altar, and other priestly garments and accessories. How amazing that 450 verses in the Torah are devoted to this structure!

We may better understand the purpose of the mishkan by viewing it against the backdrop of God's creation of the universe. The Creation and Garden of Eden narratives indicate the Torah's interest in the variety of interrelationships between God and man: their nature and dynamics, expectations and disappointments, times of stability and periods of exile.

From this perspective, the mishkan has a crucial function. While the creation of the universe was a divine act intended for humans, the creation of the mishkan was its complement, a human act directed toward the Creator of the universe, inviting Him to find a place in this world. God wants man to create space for Him within his vast universe: "And they will make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8).

This idea of a human "home" for God is by no means easy to grasp. A midrash [commentary] (Tanhuma Ki-Tissa 10) notes, "Three things that God said to Moses frightened him. One was, When God said to Moses, 'and they will make for me a shrine,' he questioned: 'Oh, Mighty One, is it not written, Behold, the heaven and the earth cannot contain Thee (I Kings 8:27). How then can You say, they will make for Me a sanctuary'" Interestingly, the midrash has Moses quoting the words of King Solomon, who voiced them at the time of the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, 500 years after the mishkan was built.

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Rabbi Moti Bar-Or

Moti Bar-Or is the founding director of Kolot, a project that engages 150 secular Israeli professional, business, and other leaders in Jewish text study, as well as in projects that contribute to Tikun Olam ("repair of the world"), such as Soadim, a south Tel Aviv soup kitchen.