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Parashat Terumah

February 15, 2007

By David Ian Cavill

I think that when most of us look at Exodus 25:8 “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (New JPS) it reads as a commandment from God. We see instruction and a promise from God to be present among the people if the mikdash (sanctuary) is constructed in a certain way. I’d like to suggest that this is not a commandment but rather a question. Moreover, I’d like to propose that it is in fact Moses, who speaks these words, and not God.

The first nine verses of the parashah form their own discreet unit of text. In my opinion, these verses summarize the rest of the reading. Furthermore, every verse in this section has a parallel later on in the text. Each of the gifts that God deems acceptable in verses 3-7 is revisited later on in the parashah. Verse 8 may seem to be a summary but I believe that our text is making a point about individuality and community.

After the departure from Egypt and in a time when Moses and the people are gaining awareness of their collective identity, Moses could very easily be interested to know about his place in the community. He may very well have grown comfortable in the idea that he had a mission to achieve. In a time when that mission was all but fulfilled, it would be quite natural for him to question his place and his purpose in the community.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer a suggestion about the meaning of the word mikdash. The word kadosh (the root of mikdash) which we usually translate as “holy” does not simply imply an intrinsic quality, as though holiness is some quantifiable substance or energy present or absent to varying degrees in a thing, in a person, in words, or in a place. Kadesh means to be set aside. With this in mind, we can think of holiness not as some magical quality but rather as a reflection of our collective thinking about something. Holiness is something that results from human awareness. A mikdash is not a place where some mystical force resides; it is a place that has been set aside, a place designated for a particular purpose. The extent to which a thing is kadosh depends on our willingness to keep it set aside, to maintain its sense of purpose. The mikdash then, is the space we create where our collective intentionality can gain focus and purpose.

Our collective national Mikdash is not a place for God to focus God’s self but rather a place for the nation to focus itself. Developing a space where a group of people can gain singular focus is enormously challenging. It is a question that goes to the very nature of pluralism and our collective identity. But the Torah relates a suggestion about how this is to be achieved. Everyone who participates in the creation of this space is enjoined to bring offerings on their own, each according to their own ability.

We read (Ex. 25:2) “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (New JPS) In this verse the Torah relates a way for each member of the community to participate in the building of the Mikdash. But Moses’ question ‘ “And will they set aside a place for me, that I may dwell among them?” (my reading) ‘ goes seemingly unanswered. We must look to the beginning of the next parashah for God’s special response to Moses.

God says to Moses “You shall further instruct . . .” (Ex. 27:20 – New JPS). Neither God nor the people will abandon Moses. Moses will continue to have a place in the community even after everyone else has brought their gifts. God commands that the entire community participate in building an institution where each member can bring something set aside for a higher purpose. This space must be one where even those who are uncertain about their role can discern their contribution as well as showcasing talents.

What kind of place will this be? This Mikdash will be a place set aside for asking questions. After all, even Moses wondered about his purpose while talking to God.