PARASHAT TERUMAH: Exodus 25:1-27:19
“Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
This week’s parashah is Terumah. It describes the construction of the Tabernacle, introducing the theme that will preoccupy the final sidrot of the book of Exodus.
At first sight it appears to be very simple, and the underlying idea is summarised in Exodus 25:8-9: “And let them make Me a Sanctuary (Mikdash) that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it.”
The idea is in fact quite breathtaking. Firstly, it is in striking contrast with the enormous tension that accompanied the encounter of God and the people at the Sinai revelation that we saw only a few weeks ago in Exodus 19. God’s descent to Mount Sinai was fraught with anxiety and foreboding: Moses was instructed to “set bounds unto the people round about, saying: ‘Take heed to yourselves, that you go not up to the mount or touch the border of it: whosoever touches the mount shall be surely put to death…’” On the third day, when it was morning, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount and the voice of a horn exceeding loud, and all the people that were in the camp trembled.” When God comes down on the mountain, fearfulness intensifies: Moses is told to go down and “charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish.” Moses, so to speak, reassures God that this will not happen: “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai: for Thou didst charge us saying: ‘Set bounds about the mount and sanctify it.’” The apparent repetition of the Divine instruction intensifies the tension of the encounter and is in striking contrast with the sense conveyed by the image of the Tabernacle.
A second paradox was noted by Solomon, as he dedicated the first Temple, which was the successor of the Tabernacle in the wilderness: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) Solomon was famously echoed at the beginning of Isaiah 66: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool; what is the house that you would build for Me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made and so all these things are Mine,’ says the Lord. ‘But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who tremble at My word.’”
Exodus 25:8 that we quoted above is amplified a little at the end of chapter 29, which is in next week’s parashah. We learn of a continual burned offering throughout the generations at the entrance of the tabernacle, before God “where I will meet with you to speak with you. And there I will meet with the people of Israel, and (the tent) will be sanctified by My glory … and I will dwell (ve’shachanti) among the people of Israel, and will be their God. And they will know that I am the Lord their God that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” The Tabernacle is both a place of holiness, which implies the sacred, the transcendent and the awe-inspiring, and at the same time a place of indwelling presence of Divine immanence and closeness.
The Hebrew for indwelling presence, derived from the verb shakan, ultimately becomes the word for the Shekhinah or Divine Presence, which has been described as a feminine aspect of the Divine. There is a fascinating medieval argument as to whether the Shechinah is a ‘light’ created to be an intermediary between God and the world (Maimonides), or the essence of God as manifest in a distinct form (Nachmanides). Maimonides, the pre-eminent philosophical authority, had a different view from Nachmanides, who was a master of Judaism’s esoteric traditions.
The Shechinah is sometimes seen as identical with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had the form of a dove and the Shechinah is described as having wings, so those who acknowledge God are described as taking refuge under the wings of the Shechinah and the saints are said to enjoy the light of the Shechinah in heaven. The Shechinah is also said to be present when two people study Torah together, or when a community is gathered for prayer.
The most surprising feature of the Tabernacle is that the golden ark cover is surmounted by two cherubim, also made of beaten gold. Given the power of the prohibition of any form of graven image, the presence of the cherubim in a most sacred place is very remarkable indeed. The one insight I am aware of is derived from the view that the Tabernacle came into being as an act of reparation for the sin of the golden calf. (This view rests on the assumption that the Torah is not necessarily bound by chronological order.)
The idea seems to be that the golden imagery that led the people into sacrilege and profanity is being restored to the sacred universe and used as an adornment for the greater glory of God. The Tabernacle is a concession to human frailty and our need for physical and imaginative expression in our relation with the Divine. Sinai, especially in the Deuteronomy account (see in particular chapter 12:4,15), was passionately anti-iconic, but this radical departure from the norms of the world proved tragically difficult to sustain. The golden cover – the kaporet – is sometimes translated as the ‘mercy seat’, presumably because ‘kaporet’ is related to the Hebrew word for atonement, and sacrificial blood was sprinkled on it as part of the ritual of the holiest day of the Jewish year when Jews atone for their sins and seek Divine forgiveness.
The encounter at Sinai and the constructing of the Tabernacle are the founding moments of the relationship of God and the people of Israel. How are we to relate to the transcendent glory of the Divine, and how is God to relate to us in all of our transient human fragility? Sinai can be read as a moment of extraordinary pathos – God seeks to be close to humanity, but at the same time realises that we will be unable to cope with the intensity of His presence, so closeness can only be sustained if it co-exists with boundaries which must never be traversed.
The Tabernacle too has its boundaries – it is ‘mikdash’ – ‘sacred’ as well as ‘mishkan’ or ‘dwelling place’, but it is ultimately an expression of freely given love, created by gifts and sustained by acts of sacrifice. It is a place of God, but it is also deeply human. Like the two cherubim, they are forever separate, but they spread out their wings over the place of forgiveness, and constantly turn their faces to each other.