If the Hebrews in the desert had insisted on forming a union and a limited liability partnership before risking their stiff necks at the Mishkan construction site, their start-up could have been named High Priests High-Priced Mobile Creations.
For in telling Moses, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them,” G-d is telling his recently freed slaves four things: You are spiritual, you are materialistic, you are co-creative, and you are mobile.
In the parshah being read Saturday, Feb. 17, Terumah, the Hebrews have been in the desert only a few months; most of them will never leave. The fact that our birth as a nation happens in the mostly uninhabitable Sinai is both a warning and a blessing.
When Moses sets up the completed Mishkan (sanctuary), the carrying staves remain in place, ready to move at a moment’s notice. The obvious meaning is never to get too attached to any particular place, for your true home is G-d’s home.
When G-d’s protective cloud hovers over the camp, the Hebrews stop, and the Mishkan is reassembled. When the cloud moves in front of the camp, the Hebrews pack up and follow wherever G-d leads them until they trust Him enough to follow His commandments on their own.
Our wanderings have continued worldwide through challenging opportunities to increase our faith while serving as a light unto the nations. Throughout our exiles, our nation’s birth outside the land of Israel has been a key to our survival: We survived a desert before we entered the Promised Land, so we knew we could survive anywhere.
The Cherokees are not the only tribe to have walked a Trail of Tears. Our tribe has also experienced numerous midwinter death marches. But our Jewish trails of tears were accompanied by hope as well as despair, based on our miraculous existence before we lived in the land and based on G-d’s promise of redemption.
This ultimate redemption could have happened during Holocaust victims’ walk to extermination; it could happen here and now. It perhaps needs only one person doing one extra act of kindness to create the critical mass and usher in the messianic era. Then that walk will be a walk of joy, of peace and of harmony.
G-d’s ultimate goal for us, according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad and author of the Tanya, is stated in Terumah. “They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them,” he writes, “is what man is all about; this is the purpose of His creation and the creation of all the words, higher and lower — that there be made for G-d a dwelling in the lower realms.”
Like Buddhists and Hindus, we want to elevate ourselves, but we also want to take the whole world up with us.
While there are parallels between the story of the creation of the world (G-d’s temporary home for us) and the creation of the Mishkan (man’s temporary home for G-d), only one chapter of the Torah is devoted to the world’s creation, while 13 are devoted to fashioning the Mishkan and training the priests. Our job is seemingly 13 times more difficult than G-d’s.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his article “Two Narratives of Creation”: “It is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult is for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, to make a home for G-d. Yet that is the purpose, not only of the Mishkan in particular, but of the Torah as a whole.”
Think about it. G-d chose to occasionally bring his presence into a man-made, 20-cubit Holy of Holies. Our job is to transform the rest of the G-d-made world into a permanent home for His presence. We have all those mountains, oceans, deserts, villages, cities, boardrooms and jungles to purify beyond G-d’s mere 20 cubits — or do we?
As Eli Touger points out, the ark of the covenant was 2.5 cubits long, yet when placed in the Holy of Holies, 10 cubits remained between the ark and each side of the Holy of Holies. In other words, the physical ark occupied no space.
When we think of heaven, do we imagine G-d’s essence floating somewhere above North America? Couldn’t heaven just as easily be floating above South America? In actuality, heaven is above, below and in North America and South America at the same time.
The Mishkan, created by man, teaches us that G-d exists in 20 cubits, 20 universes and completely outside creation simultaneously. True reality, G-d’s heavenly essence, exists everywhere.
“Why was man’s activity necessary?” Eli Touger asks in his article “A Dwelling Among Mortals.” “Because G-d’s intent is that the revelation of His Presence be internalized in the world, becoming part of the fabric of its existence. Were the revelation to come only from above, it would merely nullify worldliness. When G-d revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, the world ground to a standstill … no bird chirped … the mountain became holy and therefore, ‘all that ascend the mountain must die.’ When, however, G-d’s Presence was withdrawn from the mountain, the Jews were allowed to ascend it, for the fundamental nature of the mountain had not changed; it remained an ordinary mountain.”
In the center of the Mishkan, atop the ark and emanating from a cloud of smoke between the embracing golden cherubim, G-d’s presence would descend in a cloud of protective smoke, from which He would speak to Moses. Moses would then relay G-d’s wisdom to Joshua, Aaron and the elders, who would then disseminate the divine knowledge to the entire people.
The work of transforming every blade of grass, every grain of sand, every animal, every argument and every person from our rough physical natures to a more refined awareness of G-d is too heavy for Moses or any one of us. That is why this week’s parshah begins: “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.”
Love and gratitude inspire everyone to continue the struggle to create a dwelling place for G-d, not just so that He can abide in the Mishkan, but “so that I may dwell in them,” in the heart of each Jew, and eventually each person and sentient being, to transform the world from a lonely desert of egoist uncaring into a universal oasis of unconditional love.
As stated in “The Answer to the Mother of All Questions” on Rabbi Simon Jacobson’s MeaningfulLife.com website, “The material world, in its natural state, is not an environment hospitable to G-d. If there is one common feature to all things material, it is their intrinsic egocentrism, their placement of the self as the foundation and purpose of existence. So to make our world a ‘home’ for G-d, we must transform its very nature.”
Examples of such transformations include turning a piece of leather into a set of tefillin, giving a dollar bill to charity and using our minds to study Torah.
As much as we may dream of it in our youth, no one can change the entire world. Through His instructions on how to create a home for Him, G-d tells us that is not necessary. The Garden of Eden still exists. We wake up to it every day.
The name for G-d as Creator, Elohim, has the same gematria as HaTeva, the Nature. We have become so detached from the glory of G-d’s creation and from our own divine nature that we forget that He entrusted us to be the caretakers not only of His garden, but also of His rivers, His plants, His soil and His animals. Our attempts to exploit nature for our benefit and comfort have resulted in the pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
Our attempts to manipulate and change those around us for our selfish needs have resulted in ego battles, separation and isolation. Our external battles are reflections of our internal struggles between our animal souls and our divine souls.
In Terumah, G-d is telling us not to look outside ourselves for gratification, but to look within, look deep inside the heart of the Mishkan to the Holy of Holies and to the cherubim, the golden angels, whose loving embrace demonstrates His love for us, our love for one another and our love for all parts of ourselves.
If we unconditionally love ourselves and accept own human and divine natures, He will heal our relationships and our planet while expanding His glory from the 20 cubits of the Holy of Holies to all creation. Bring the healing and transforming energy of the 2½-cubit ark into our 2½-inch hearts, offering generosity to the world, and we will feel a oneness with all creation and with G-d. “Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them.”
May each of us take the unconditional love and respect that we have been blessed to find in this community, and, with pride in our heritage and with freedom and power to add our individual gifts to the universal Mishkan, may we spread the light of wisdom, love and respect to all people and all species as we help reinstate G-d’s spirit into this physical Garden of Eden for which we are responsible. May we all see the flourishing and revitalization take place here, now and forever more.
Yaacov Gothard is an Atlanta business owner who worships at Chabad of Cobb.