Teruma – A House for God, Who Resides Outside of it
The Parsha of Teruma opens with a direct appeal. The Lord instructed Moses to: “Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take for me contributions, from each man who’s heart prompts him you shall take My contribution.” (Exodus 25:2)
The appeal was specifically for the purpose of building a house of God, a sanctuary. This sanctuary, the Tabernacle, would serve as the spiritual center of Israel for the better part of four centuries until the Temple of Solomon was built in Jerusalem. The Torah lists the various materials which were needed for the construction of the Tabernacle and its functioning, and following this list the verse states: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in their midst.” (25:8)
A classic question is raised by commentators. The language of the verse is odd. It could easily have stated that ‘they shall build a Sanctuary I will dwell in it.’ Instead the verse reads: they (the people) will make a Sanctuary for Me, and I (God) will dwell in their (the people’s) midst. The verse seems to imply that the presence of the Sanctuary will enable the dwelling of God among the people, whereas without the Sanctuary from where Divine Worship was directed, the presence of God would not be manifest among the people.
There is an interesting dispute regarding the chronology of events. While the instructions to build the Tabernacle appear in the Torah here, some commentators insist that the instructions of building of the Tabernacle occurred later, after the tragic episode of the Golden Calf. The people had come together with the unified purpose of constructing an image through which they could worship God, although one of the commandments given directly by the Lord at Sinai restricted the formation of any such image. To make amends for the Golden Calf and to channel that urge in a manner sanctioned by God the people were given the opportunity to come together, unified, to build this Sanctuary.
According to this explanation the aims of both the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle were one and the same. The objective was to relate to God, to bring His presence down among the people. Just as the Golden Calf was intended to be a means of relating to God, so the Tabernacle would serve as such a means. Through the prescribed worship and offerings in the Tabernacle the people could better relate to the spiritual presence of God. The physical building of the Tabernacle made space for God, and it made space in the consciousness of the people and in their hearts. Thus, when the Tabernacle was built, God could dwell in their (the people’s) midst.
In his great work Nefesh HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin alludes to a Midrash regarding the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonian Empire. The Midrash states that upon Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem a heavenly voice reverberated through the air saying: “A dead nation you have killed, a burnt house you have burnt, ground wheat you are grinding…” Since the people had abandoned the use of the Temple for facilitating a relationship with God the Temple no longer served its purpose, and the presence of God was no longer among the people. In that respect the people were already dead. Nebuchadnezzar simply went through the motions of collapsing what was now a house of cards. The spirit of the house had already been burnt and the raging fires ignited by Babylonia were simply burning the shell of a destroyed building.
Every synagogue, school and institution of true Jewish learning serves as a Sanctuary, facilitating our relationship with God and enabling God’s presence to reside in our midst. But even Solomon’s Temple could not guarantee the retention of God in the people’s midst. In order for such a Sanctuary to serve this function the hearts of its people must prompt them. The contributions raised to construct the Temple were restricted to those contributions given by people whose hearts were motivated. Because absent such motivation the Tabernacle is a mere shell, a burnt out house.