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Parashat Terumah 5783

February 20, 2023

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The Impermanence of the Natural world and the Eternity of God’s Presence
A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah
By Rabbi Mitchell Blank (’21)

As I write these words, the death toll has risen to over 36,000 and tens of thousands more have been injured, let alone the untold number who have become homeless and penniless. Life on earth is truly fragile and it’s sad that only violent tragedies such as the recent earthquake centered in Turkey and Syria seem to be able to wake us up to the reality of the impermanence of it all. In these moments, we cry out to God: Where are you?! Yet, we know that this apparent absence of the Divine is beyond our comprehension. In better times, we can occasionally feel God’s presence. We acknowledge this natural oscillation in our understanding of God in the Kedushah for Musaf: “God’s glory fills the universe” but immediately afterwards “Praised is Adonai’s glory wherever God dwells.” God’s presence is never a fixity despite the construction of the desert Tabernacle or the two Temples in Jerusalem. Paradoxically, it is in the impermanence of God’s precise presence on earth where we can find spiritual solace and comfort.

In Parashat Terumah we learn of the blueprints for the Tabernacle, the portable, impermanent locus of Israelite worship throughout the years of desert wandering. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8). The Tabernacle, in Hebrew mishkan, is derived from the root shin kaf nun which means “to rest” and davka does not signify a permanent dwelling. Throughout Jewish history, both “permanent” locales (i.e. the Temples) and temporary resting places of holiness will provide comfort for the people; finding solace in God’s presence regardless of whether a physical structure endures, crumbles in an instant or even exists at all.

In the Bible, God’s hovering presence is first mentioned in Exodus 24 when Moses ascends Mt Sinai to receive the Torah directly from God. “The presence of the Lord abode (shakhan) on Mount Sinai…on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud…and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights”. (Ex. 24:16,18) Here, God’s presence appears to Moses only and only on the mountaintop. As Ramban notes in his introduction to our parashah “the mystery behind the Tabernacle (mishkan) is that God’s presence which abode (shakhan) on Mount Sinai would discreetly do the same in the Tabernacle.” God’s presence (in the Bible k’vod Adonai) eventually is renamed Shekhina by the Rabbis because this presence can rest anywhere God chooses at any time, whether atop a lofty mountain, ensconced within an impermanent structure or merely accompanying Israel into exile.

Solomon’s Temple, a grand edifice made of a stone exterior with lots of cedar wood and gold inside, took seven years to build. The final product fulfilled God’s promise to his father David. “If you follow my laws and observe my rules and faithfully keep My commandments…I will abide (v’shakhanti) among the children of Israel and I will never forsake My people Israel.” (1 Kings 6:12-13) Note well that the promise to abide among the Israelites and never forsake them is not at all dependent on the physical structure! Upon the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, the presence of the Lord fills the Temple just as it enveloped Moses on Mount Sinai and just as it suffused the Tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus. “Then Solomon declared. The Lord has chosen (my emphasis) to abide (lishkhon) in a thick cloud…but will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I built.” (1 Kings 8:12,27) Despite the temporary appearance of a tangible presence of God, King Solomon gets it. The Temple is a temporary locus of the presence of God but the Infinite One cannot possibly be contained in any physical structure.

Roughly 100 years after the erection of the Temple, Elijah the Prophet experiences a theophany which further elucidates the nature of God’s presence. Elijah flees for his life from the wicked King Ahab. He walks 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb (aka Mount Sinai). “And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks (my emphasis) by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” (1 Kings 19:11) Unlike the Biblical encounter at Sinai, the presence of God for Elijah is not found in meteorological phenomena nor violent seismic manifestations but rather in “a soft murmuring sound.” (1 Kings 19:12) God is NOT in the earthquake.

About 300 years later, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the prophet Zechariah prophesizes “the Mount of Olives shall split across from east to west and one part of the Mount shall shift to the north and the other to the south, a huge gorge.” (Zech. 14:4) Both Sinai and the Mount of Olives, our two most venerated sites of God’s presence, can split, shift or crumble in an instant; yet God’s presence, Shekhina, endures. God is NOT permanently in a mountain, nor a building, nor an earthquake. Since God is not a fixity anywhere (i.e. The Presence is impermanent) this necessarily means God can manifest anywhere. Since God’s glory can be anywhere, “Praised is Adonai’s glory wherever God dwells.”

Both God and Solomon acknowledge that the process of experiencing God’s presence on earth is actually initiated by each human being in their own heart. Solomon entreats God: “In any prayer or supplication offered by any person among all Your people Israel-each who knows his own “affliction” (literally defect of his heart), when he spreads his palms towards this House, oh hear in your heavenly abode and pardon and take action! Render to each man according to his ways as You know his heart to be-for You alone know the hearts of all men.” (my emphasis) (1 Kings 8:38-39). From the very beginning of the appearance of God’s presence on earth, God too, understands how the process works. In this week’s parashah, God solicits voluntary gifts to build the Tabernacle “from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Ex. 25:2) (literally one who contributes his heart). The heart must be moved to give, otherwise there can be no sacred space. WE create the sacred space where God’s presence can be experienced. Carving out that sacred space begins within our hearts.

Combining Solomon’s wisdom with God’s instructions to Moses, if we meditate on the defects of our heart, our heart will be moved to give. The heart becomes the sacred space where God will dwell within us “for He alone knows the hearts of men. (1 Kings 8:38-39). Exodus 25:8 does not say I will dwell within the Tabernacle (b’tokho) but rather I will dwell within THEM, (b’tokham) that is, within the hearts of each and every Israelite.

If we are sensitized to the suffering and pain that flows from the reality of earthquakes and other horrific reminders of impermanence, and we thereby allow our hearts to be moved, we can feel the presence of God in even the darkest of times. If we are then spurred to action, this is precisely how God’s presence is made manifest in our imperfect world. We won’t always understand where God is in times of trouble but we can always initiate the process of seeking to reconnect to God’s presence, one heart at a time.
Rabbi Mitchell Blank was ordained by AJR in April 2021 and most recently served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn.