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Terumah- Where Does God Dwell?

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Have you ever built or remodeled your home? It is rarely a fun or pleasant experience and there are SO many details to keep track of, and, SO many decisions to be made. Well, God takes care of that for us in this week’s Torah portion, where we read of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. Verse after verse, page after page, chapter after chapter- detail after detail of EXACTLY how God wants the Mishkan to be built. Precise instructions for every aspect of the project- the materials, the size, the design. Absolutely no room is allowed for creativity or vision; everything is spelled out.

Parshat Terumah describes the first Jewish gathering place ever built. Every person is invited to participate, but only as their heart moves them. A holy place for a holy people can only be built by volunteers. The Torah is not averse to taxes, but the word terumah itself means a gift, something we give because we feel moved to give.

In chapter 25, verse 8, we read God’s words, “Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” This is surprising. We would expect the Torah to say, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT?”  All of this time and effort and expense to build God a home, and God is not even going to live there? What’s the point of that? Not even as a winter visitor?

The point, I believe, is that the spirit of God, the spirit of holiness, cannot and should not be contained in a particular place. The spirit of God resides in the very act of giving itself, in our desire to create a place for community. What God wants is for us to be moved to give. Despite the tremendous emphasis on the details of the construction, it is the gift of our participation that is ultimately the most meaningful. Your presence here tonight is so meaningful- without you we could have the most beautiful sanctuary in the world and it would be an empty shell.

The verse says, “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” How fascinating that the word “to dwell”- “v’Shachanti”- is the same as the root of the word “shachen,” meaning “neighbor.” One more hint at the connection of the Divine spirit dwelling in our relationships and in how we give to each other! The way that we connect with God is to connect with each other- we are God’s hands and God’s heart, we fulfill our Divine destiny by giving of ourselves to build relationships and community.

The ark was to be adorned with the figures of cherubs, and they were to be constructed in such a way that they faced each other. Our place of worship is not a place where we withdraw from the world. It is a place where we are reminded of our responsibility to the world. That is why halacha, Jewish law, requires that a synagogue be built with windows, so that we never forget that what goes on in here must resonate in the world out there.

“Where does God dwell?”, asked Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. “God dwells,” he answered, “wherever we let God in.” You’ll notice on the front cover of your Shabbat bulletin the Hebrew word, “v’natnu,” “and they shall give.” You will notice that it is a palindrome, that is, it appears the same whether you read it from left to right, or, from right to left.

Thus, we learn, that when we give, we receive back, and as we receive, so we are moved to give. When we give to others, we come to appreciate our own blessings. As we give, we appreciate that life itself is a gift. Thank you for the gift of your most precious selves as part of our congregation, for your presence and your voices, for your love and caring in our community and in the world.

As we build a sanctuary, we are reminded to bring our best possible selves as our gift to the community, and that, as we do so, the spirit of God will, indeed, dwell in our midst.

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