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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Later, the midrash refers to another question asked by Solomon, which is again attributed to Moses: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth" (I Kings 8:37). The midrash continues with God's answer, "...Not as you comprehend it, with 20 planks northward and 20 southward and eight westward--rather, I will descend and reduce My divine presence, and furthermore, I will reduce it into a square cubit!"

This mind-boggling paradox--to worship Him whom "the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain" within the confined space of a square cubit--heightens the tension innate in the concept of worshipping God within any spatial limit. A beautiful talmudic saying expresses this paradox in romantic terms: "When our love was great, we could lie together on the point of a sword. Now that our love has ceased to be strong, even a bed of 60 cubits is too small and does not suffice" (Tractate Sanhedrin 7a).

Perhaps this is the role of the mishkan, to be "the point of the sword," where God may reside when there is love. In our parashah, the love between the Jewish people and God that sustains the mishkan is concretized by the "willingness of heart" that God requests and the people provide.

Why Even Build It?

But why did God want the people to build a mishkan in the first place? Commentators disagree whether the mishkan was part of God's original plan for His people, or was a consequence of the people's attempt to "concretize" God through the sin of the golden calf. According to the latter outlook, the real essence of religious experience is the perception of God as being omnipresent; that is, one can experience God anywhere, rather than His being confined to one place.

Thus, Sforno, a medieval commentator, claims that there was no need to anchor the worship of God to a concrete place, because the experience of hearing--and even "seeing"--God's voice at Mount Sinai would have provided the paradigm for other encounters with Him. But, continues Sforno, after the sin of the golden calf, the need arose for a more tangible means of worshipping God; thus, the mishkan and its furniture, implements, and rites.

The opposing view regards the mitzvot concerning the mishkan and the Temple as laws that God intended to give from the beginning of Creation, so as to "reduce" Himself to be able to inhabit this world, to rest in a "house" in which He would meet His worshippers. According to this view, the concept of makom ("place") has great significance for Judaism, as reflected in the designation of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple as "the place." In addition, one of God's names is Makom.

Today, in the post-Holocaust world, we Jews face the deep challenge of reformulating our relationship with God. To this day, two very different conceptions of Jewish faith exist--one viewing God as tied to a makom, the other seeing Him as ein-sof, "place-less."

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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.