Parashat Terumah 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham

“And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”

Exodus 25:8

Some people require periods of solitude in order to best function in the world. In fact, self-chosen solitude is generally considered to be beneficial, particularly in today’s increasingly social-media-run, group-conscious culture. And although our biblical ancestors obviously didn’t have cellphones or Twitter accounts as they wandered in the wilderness, the conditions of their lifestyle – being constantly surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people — similarly was not conducive to seeking solitude. Two weeks ago in the Torah portion Yitro, we read about how the Israelite people stood together in fear and awe as God’s laws were revealed to them; had I been there, I imagine I would not be the only one in need of some alone-time so as to reflect on what had just happened. Which leads one to wonder: since we are created in God’s image, does God, like us, sometimes need a place for solitude?

Let’s hold that thought for a moment. In a narrative sense at least, this week’s Torah reading gives the Israelite people a collective rest. Parashat Terumah consists entirely of instructions given by God to Moses regarding the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which will be kept throughout the time of the wanderings of our ancestors until the more permanent mikdash, the Temple, can be built.  Among the many details pertaining to measurements, materials, and placement, one aspect stands out — the order in which the instructions are given. When erecting a typical structure, one tends to begin with the frame and outer walls, and then work inwards. Furniture and belongings are placed inside only after the structure is complete. God’s instructions to Moses appear in reverse order. These begin with the innermost central feature, the ark which will house the sacred covenant of law (along with the table for the showbread, and the menorah), then move outward to the curtains for the tent of meeting, followed by the walls, altar, and outer courtyard.  The order seems to be one of priority, not practicality, although one wonders then whether the description of the altar might also have come sooner.

In any case, much has been written with regard to the primary importance of the ark of the covenant. This central feature is described in great detail, culminating in the placement of two golden cherubim, one at each end of the ark covering; and it is between these that God will appear when the Divine Presence abides within the holy of holies: “And I will meet with you there, and I will speak with you from above the cover, between the two cherubim who are on top of the ark of the covenant – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people” (Exodus 25:22). This inner sanctuary is not only a fitting place to house our laws; it is also – to use an overused though well-intentioned phrase found on many a synagogue website – a “warm and welcoming” dwelling place for God.

To return to our initial question, perhaps God needs this quiet, solitary space as much as Moses and the Israelite people need to know that God will be there. Think of it: ever since creation, God has been an active force for change, having to address countless individual human errors and failings, witnessing the enslavement in Egypt, selecting the reluctant Moses as leader, enacting miracles intended to terrify the Egyptians and instill awe in the hearts of Israelites – there has hardly been a moment’s respite. Nor does it seem as if the situation is likely to calm down any time soon.  And so, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation and we thereby inherited Shabbat, perhaps the creation of the sanctuary suggests a mutual need for this meeting place. As God surely understands the Israelites’ need to witness the Divine Presence, and therefore designs this sacred God-dwelling among the people, so too does it provide a quiet respite for the God-self, a place for Divine Being as distinct from Divine Action.

Today in our post-Temple world, where the inner sanctum and the ark and the cherubim have all been lost, we can create a virtual sanctuary within ourselves, a place where we can pause and reflect and where, perhaps, God can drop by from time to time. As composer Randy Scruggs wrote,

“Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true;

With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for You.”*

When we become tired from the work of repairing the world and repairing ourselves, or when we are just plain tired, we come home to our personal inner sanctum, the place where we keep our virtual ark, our sacred place of knowing. We build our inner sanctuary for us and for God, a quiet place within our consciousness where Divine Truth can dwell.

Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.