A few years ago, I visited the Tower of London. In addition to the many places that served as prison cells over the centuries, and the vast number of weapons on display, there is an area of the Tower that is dedicated to holding the royal jewels, crowns, scepters, tapestry, and coins. I thought the experience of looking at all this glass-enclosed finery was very strange. What did all this assembled stuff mean? Some of it was ornate, so I noticed the craftsmanship that made it beautiful. The rocks (emeralds, diamonds, rubies) were all beautiful, but none of it was in its natural form. Everything was a combination of raw materials and human creativity. The artistry that went into the collected stuff —the ways that the rocks were cut, the gold, silver, and other precious metals were engraved or forged — was what made all this stuff “priceless”.
But what is the point of all this collected stuff in the Tower of London? Does it in some way affirm the owner of all this stuff? What does it mean to own the “crown jewels”? When does all this stuff stop being jewelry and become national treasure? Why is this stuff “priceless”? What does the king with the most ornate crown win? What, if anything, does an incredibly ornate crown or scepter mean?
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, sort of reminded me of the Tower of London. The Torah portion focuses on the building of the “mishkan”, the portable Tabernacle, or meeting place, where God would dwell among the people. It describes in precise detail what the dwelling place was supposed to look like and all the stuff that goes into that dwelling place. The description makes it clear that this stuff is supposed to be the best — it’s a place that reflects the most valued of human material possessions. It’s filled with pure gold, silver, jewels, fancy wood and fancy cloth.
The Tower of London is supposed to impress you by the vastness and richness of the collection, which in turn affirms that the people who own this collection are royal. The Tower of London did not inspire me to experience awe among the riches. I found it sort of boring. It seemed to be a place that was locked away from the world, and, with the exception of the historical basis of most of the stuff, it was irrelevant to the world. But the mishkan, tabernacle, is supposed to impress us with the sense that all this collected stuff inspires awe of that which is holy. The mishkan was supposed to inspire the “Oh, my God” reaction, literally. It was supposed to bring us to an awareness of God’s Presence by the very amazing stuff that was in it. It had to be a place that showed “this is the kind of place where humanity can meet God.”
The Tower of London is intended to lock stuff away, to keep it, for the most part, out of circulation. That was part of why it was a great prison. It was good for locking things away forever. But the mishkan is supposed to inspire worship, to move us from the mundane to the holy, through the overwhelming experience of awe. Not locked out, the mishkan was about bringing in. The first sentence of this week’s Torah portion says that God wanted the Israelites to “bring” gifts to be added to the mishkan collection, so they could be literally a part of what it’s about.
If you were going to build a portable place in which the Presence of God would dwell, what would this place look like? How would you construct it? What materials would you use, and how would they be assembled? Would you make this shrine ornate, or would it be incredibly simple? In either case, what would be the meaning of the design? If God’s dwelling place is made entirely out of gold, what would that mean about God, the dwelling place, and the people who use it? If it were made completely out of green materials, and was completely, elegantly, simple, what would that mean?
I tend to doubt that modern people would construct the mishkan the way it is described this week. But the Torah portion is informative, in that it gets us to think about the kind of places we have, where we can see God dwelling among us, and as a reminder that God wants to dwell among us. But it’s not the form that’s important: it’s the content. The content of the Tower of London is the stuff; the content of the mishkan is the spirit, the holiness, the awe of the experience of being in a place where God dwells, that each person had a part in creating.
May it be Your will, Holy One, that we make room for You in our lives. May we find the ways to experience the awe, the wonder, of being in Your Presence. May we look at the details of the form of the mishkan as described in this week’s Torah portion as the point of departure for us to find the content that is within.
Rabbi Dr. H. Rafael Goldstein is the executive director of Nehama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, the international Jewish chaplaincy organization which provides Board Certification, education and advocacy for Jewish Chaplains. He lives in Englewood.