Parshat Terumah   “To Be or Not to Be?”

Parshat Terumah is the first of four Torah portions that deal mostly with the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites built at God's command and carried with them on their wanderings in the desert. After the excitement and fireworks of the ten plagues, the redemption from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the Sinai revelation and the giving of the Ten Commandments, there is a sense of anticlimax as we settle down to four solid weeks' worth of technical details, building specifications, and lists of materials, enlivened only by the shameful episode of the Golden Calf. Was this what we were brought out of Egypt to do?

The problem with the portions that deal with the Mishkan is that we can't see the wood for the trees: we get entangled in all those cubits and fine twisted linens, and miss the point of the entire enterprise. Traditional commentators noted long ago, that the language describing the completion of the Mishkan is very similar to that used to describe God's completion of the Creation of the world. The Midrash Tanchuma underlines this: 'The Mishkan was the equivalent of the seven days of Creation'. The Midrash goes on to parallel the component parts of the Mishkan and the Creation: the curtains parallel the heavens made on Day One, the separation of the Mishkan's chambers parallels the separation of waters of Day Two, the bronze water container parallels the making of the oceans on Day Three, and so on, up to the completion and blessing of the Mishkan, which parallels Shabbat.

We say at Kiddush every Shabbat: ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת לעשות את השבת”  “And the Children of Israel observed the Shabbat, to make (create) the Shabbat for the generations as an everlasting covenant.” The choice of the word “לעשות” to create is a bit strange. Until now we find the word “עשייה” only referring to Hashem’s ability to create. What are the Children of Israel creating; aren’t we just remembering the Shabbat?

In commanding us to make a Mishkan, “ועשו לי מקדש” and make for me a sanctuary, Exodus 25:8, Hashem is giving us a chance to imitate Him: humans too can create, and can derive joy and fulfillment from their creations. Both men and women are involved in the construction of the Mishkan, and the text emphasizes their wholeheartedness as they engage in this communal project. Their labors are crowned with the ultimate success: Hashem Himself dwells there, among them, in their creation, the mini-cosmos that they have made, just as humans dwell in the G-d-created macro-cosmos. The Temple was a repeat of this project, as we see from the Haftorah (Weekly Prophet’s portion) for Terumah. The same too regarding Shabbat: Yes, we are commanded to remember. But it’s not enough just remembering the Shabbat. We “create the Shabbat.” We do this by imbuing our homes, our children and grandchildren, with the holiness of Shabbat by “not doing.” We honor Hashem by how much we don’t “do”, and just “be.” We “create” by not doing.

Hashem reveals Himself to us in His creation; our task is to respond to His commands by creating in our turn. And if we carry out our task successfully, He will truly dwell among us!


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