By Rabbi Simcha Zevit
The essence of Torah is to teach us how to be in relationship to God. In our Torah readings these past few weeks leading up to parshat Terumah, we see critical stages in this ongoing relationship building.
Two weeks ago, in parshat Yitro, the Israelites have an explosive encounter with God at Mount Sinai: There is thunder, trembling, smoke, fire and loud shofar blasts. It’s an overwhelming experience in which the people are afraid.
In Exodus 20, verse 15, we read: “All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance.” They do not yet know how to “be” with God, how to enter into relationship with this powerful presence and they back away in fear.
And yet in parshat Terumah, we see that God wants to be so close to us. God says to Moses: “V’asu li mikdash, v’shochanti b’tocham — they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” Some translate this verse: “They shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” How do we go from this huge, explosive, terrifying encounter with God at Sinai to a relationship of such closeness that God dwells within us? How do we move from distance to nearness, and from fear to love?
One possible answer to these questions lies in the Torah portion that comes in the middle: Mishpatim.
Between the awesome revelation at Sinai and the building of the mishkan (sanctuary) in this week’s parsha, parshat Mishpatim gives us long lists of laws/rules/mitzvot/action directives. God is asking the people to behave in ways that set up a society in which Godliness can be present among them: “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger … You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan … When you lend money to the poor among you, do not charge them interest …Do not be a follower of the majority for evil … Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor… Do all of your work in six days and refresh yourselves and your animals on the seventh … Celebrate three pilgrimage, festivals each year — and appear before the Lord on those occasions” and on and on.
After the revelation at Sinai, where the Israelites encounter a whole new reality, God gives them ways to reorder their lives, and through the mitzvot, to acclimate to a realization of God’s presence by participating in actions which affirm and acknowledge it.
Perhaps this week, in Terumah, there is another stage of this relationship coming into being.
In the first verses of Terumah, as the people are instructed to build the mishkan (sanctuary where God will “dwell”) God says: “Speak to the Israelites and have them bring Me an offering [for the sanctuary] — take My offering from everyone whose hearts impel them to give.”
The Israelites were asked to voluntarily give the best of what they’ve got for the construction of the sanctuary and to give their silver and gold, fine materials and precious stones not just out of obligation, but out of love, generosity and a heartfelt desire to take part in the creation of God’s dwelling place here on earth.
It seems that Torah is now teaching us not only about the outer, behavioral actions that can draw God near, but also about the importance of bringing our hearts, our inner selves, to the relationship. A terumah offering is one that uplifts and elevates, perhaps alluding to the idea that this type of generous giving of gifts of the heart elevates this relationship with God to a new, more intimate, level.
Yitro: First there is an awesome experience which explodes or shatters old understandings and ways of being, and forces us to see and accept a whole new, God-centered reality.
Mishpatim: Then we are shown to reorder our lives around this new awareness, and to lay a foundation for our individual and communal lives in which our actions and behaviors will help us to acknowledge and honor God’s presence in all that we do.
Terumah: Ideally, we offer the best of who we are and of what we can give, we bring our inner selves to one another and to God to form holy relationships in which God’s presence thrives.
Our relationship with God expands as outer behaviors join with inner essence, as distance and fear are brought to nearness and love, in the building of a mishkan, a holy dwelling place, within our actions, our hearts and our lives.
Simcha Zevit serves as rabbi of the Narberth Havurah and as a chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.