Terumah: The blueprints for sacred spaces as a guide to sacred living
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Terumah: The blueprints for sacred spaces as a guide to sacred living

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In parashat Terumah we are given the blueprints to the sacred construction project that will become the focus for much of the rest of the book of Exodus. It begins with God instructing Moses to ask for gifts (terumah) from the Israelites. These gifts are not a demand or a request; instead they are supposed to be an appeal from those who are so moved to bring them. Be they yarns, animal skins, semi-precious stones or precious metals, all gifts will be accepted and needed to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. This mishkan will be where the Israelites will worship God during their time in the wilderness. As an aside, this was the first and last time that a Jewish construction project was finished on-time and under budget.

Then God says something curious, “let them make me a sanctuary (mikdash) that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Putting aside the issue of how exactly God will dwell among the Israelites, God is providing a second name for this structure, mikdash rather than mishkan. The rabbis of the Talmud resolve this issue by stating that these two terms were synonyms (BT Eruvin 2a).

However, over the study of Jewish history, the definitions of mishkan and mikdash diverge. The term mishkan was used primarily to describe the temporary structure that accompanied the Israelites and was broken down, carried and set up by various groups of Levites. Whereas the term mikdash ultimately came to refer to Beit HaMikdash, the First Temple built by Solomon and later the Second Temple built following the Babylonian exile which was expanded upon by Herod.

This raises the question of why use two different terms for the sacred space we are to construct so that God may dwell among us?

To answer this, we can look to an argument in the Talmud among the rabbis over the minimum requirements necessary to be a ‘good’ Jew. In Berachot 47b, the rabbis have an argument over who is an am-ha’aretz, someone not the least bit observant. Rabbi Eliezer says it is someone who does not recite the Shema in the morning and evening. Rabbi Joshua says it is someone who does not put on tefillin. Rabbi Nathan says it is someone who does not put a mezuzah on their door. The argument continues without any formal resolution to it, with each rabbi articulating their vision of a minimum act needed to be considered among the Jewish community.

Rather than focus on the negative, in reading about the mishkan and the mikdash, we are presented with positive possibilities of what it means to live in a meaningful Jewish way. With the miskhan, we learn there are temporal, momentary ways we can act in profound ways like some of those presented above. The mishkan was where the Israelites worshipped God and they gave willingly to build, support, and sustain it through acts of love.

The mikdash, the permanent structure, on the other hand, was where the Israelites encountered the sacred and the Holy. To sustain this requires more than just the occasional mitzvah, but an ongoing dedication to Jewish living. To be able to build the metaphorical mikdash in our hearts means we need to find meaningful ways to continually encounter the Holy through Jewish acts and Jewish commitment.

However, the choices and opportunities to do so can be overwhelming. Thankfully, whenever the rabbis explore Jewish obligations, they talk about minimums rather than maximums. Yes, one can recite the Shema twice a day. One can lay tefillin. One can worship three times a day. But these are not the only ways by which one can also strive to live an ethically meaningful life. There are myriad of possibilities. For example, one can support Jewish institutions. One can attend the Jewish film festival or hear a Jewish lecture on topics of importance. One can fight against the scourge of antisemitism. One can support the State of Israel. One can stand up for social justice and engage in repairing the world, just to name a few.

Unlike the mishkan, there is no one right way to build the mikdash in our hearts. However, to sustain it we have to constantly be engaged in erecting it if we wish for God to dwell in our midst. As is often articulated, Judaism is a tradition of action. It is not just about what you think and what you feel. Rather, we can ask ourselves the question each and every day: what did I do today that was Jewish? What gifts did I offer of my heart to the world today? What did I do to support the sacred space of the mishkan to enable God to continue to be with us?

Building the mishkan was and is a communal effort of every day sacred choices. We have the blueprints, it is up to us to continually be adding our own pieces to this sacred space through our actions, our choices, our hopes, our prayers, and our deeds. We know what we have to build. We just need to go out and make the offerings of our hearts each and every day.

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