By Rabbi Fred Morgan, Senior Rabbi,
Temple Beth Israel
, Melbourne, Australia
The portion Terumah begins a narrative about the construction of the
, the sanctuary that accompanies the Jewish people in their wanderings through the wilderness, that takes up five weekly readings from the Torah. It is the longest continuous narrative in the Torah and tells us every conceivable detail we might want to know about the
’s design and engineering – the entire
of the sanctuary. What it doesn’t tell us is the
; why the people are commanded to build a sacred space for God in their midst. After all, the purpose of Torah thus far is to demonstrate to us that God is present everywhere; God is all-powerful and ubiquitous. Together with the Israelites in Egypt, we’ve just experienced God’s domination of nature through the ten plagues, the splitting of the Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s forces. There is nowhere that God is not, and nothing that God cannot do. Why, then, do the people need to construct a sacred space as God’s dwelling place?
Among the many possible answers to the question
the mishkan, I’d like to focus on one that relates to the situation of the people and their experience as a nation of slaves. They had been released from their bondage only months earlier through the intervention of a God who creates terrifying havoc with nature, splits the seas with the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the warrior, and destroys the enemy by forcing them into the depths of the waters. Their leader Moses goes up the mountain to engage with this awesome, terrible God. Left alone in the wilderness, disorientated and in despair, the people are overwhelmed with fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the precariousness of the future, fear for their lives. It is this fear that motivates the episode of the Golden Calf (it awaits our reading in two weeks’ time), when the people take refuge in a god of their own making, seeking escape from their fear in frenzied dancing and raving.
, the sacred space within a tent where God’s presence may be felt immediately by the people, is the people’s God-given defense against fear. It assures the people that God has not abandoned them, they are not alone. Nor will God turn against them and destroy them as God destroyed the Egyptians. God stands with them, comforting and consoling them in their fear. And its design is carefully laid out for them in the literary chronology of Torah even before they succumb to fear in the episode of the Golden Calf. Before the sickness befalls them, the cure is revealed.
In Terumah God says, “Make for Me a sacred space (
), that I may dwell within it (
).” It has often been noted that the Hebrew expression
, translated here as “within it”, is actually in the plural and should be translated “within them”. The suggestion is that God dwells within each and every person who makes space within for God. The “sacred space” of Terumah denotes not merely the physical
. God dwells within the heart, the sacred space in each person. It is this sense of intimacy, warmth and closeness, of presence, that overcomes fear and brings peace. The sense of awesomeness and terror that expresses God’s power in the world, that overturns nature in Egypt and fearsomely splits the Sea, is transformed for this slave-people into comfort, compassion and love when it is made “to dwell within them”.
Let’s turn this abstract theology into something real for us. Like our ancient forebears, we, too, stand in fear and trembling before the powers that threaten us. The world is indeed a dangerous place, and the dangers are magnified for us by prophets of doom, people who announce everything that can possibly go wrong and whose advice is predicated on the politics of fear. Rather than seeking to overcome distance and isolation by drawing others closer to us and so addressing the God who dwells “within them”, they create an even greater gap between us and those we fear. As a result, they would have us fashion political Golden Calves to protect us from the demons without. But the fear never abates because the whole structure is constructed on fear itself.
Not long ago I was buttonholed at a wedding reception by such a prophet, a woman who cross-examined me about my community’s involvement with interfaith dialogue. Her argument in a nutshell was that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of violence, that all dialogue with Muslims is at best naïve, at worst dishonest or self-serving, and that Jews who seek to engage with Muslims are assuming the status of
and slavishly demeaning themselves and our people.
I am grateful to this woman for lecturing me on the inner workings of Islam and the
tude of Jews who attempt to engage in conversation with Muslims. Such interactions help me to reflect yet again on the mitzvot of my religion, including the building of the mishkan, an interior dwelling place for God where I can meet the stranger (including this woman) face to face.
Dealing with strangers is rarely easy; it is often threatening. But Torah teaches me that only by caring for the stranger, interacting with the stranger and so endowing the stranger with qualities of personality as a fellow human being – only by performing
, a coming near to the stranger – do we have a chance to overcome fear and transform it into a positive force for good. The easy way, the politically pragmatic way, is to give in to fear. It seems reasonable because it accords with our instincts to exclude the stranger and so turn the stranger into an enemy. The much harder way is to resist that instinct in ourselves; to open ourselves up to the stranger, invite the stranger into our home, meet the stranger in conversation and draw the stranger near to us. The result of this is that the stranger is no longer a stranger, and the power that seemed so frightening when it was “out there” is transformed within us into the sense of humanity that we share with one another.
This is not an airy-fairy, feel-good theology. It requires hard work and careful deliberation. We engage in it with open eyes, but also with open hearts. It leads us, ever so gradually, to replace our all-so-reasonable fears with hopefulness born of compassion.
We are all like the lady who harangued me at the wedding; we all carry fear within us. The question Terumah poses for us is, Despite our fear, can we build a mishkan, a sacred space within our hearts, that will draw on God’s awesome power to help us to transform that fear into closeness, intimacy and hope?