What are your precious gifts? | Teruma

A few weeks ago, my synagogue hosted a wonderful artist/scholar-in-residence, Daniel Abramson, for the weekend. One of the goals of the weekend was to strengthen the sense of community bonds through the creation of a community tallit. This was an intergenerational large-scale, painting on silk art project that began on Friday afternoon and was completed by Sunday at noon.

Throughout the weekend, Daniel taught – through story, text-study, symbolism, and art –  the notion that each of us has unique gifts to share with those around us. He was able to beautifully articulate the notion that when we share our gifts with others, we create a special legacy that adds value and meaning to the life of our shared community.

When we create something as part of our k’hillah k’dosha, our sacred community, it not only connects us with each other, it enables us to bring God into our midst. The magnificent communal tallit we created during that weekend was greater than the sum of its parts: its resplendent beauty was magnified due to the fact that each congregant could see their unique contribution reflected within it. As we finished the tallit, we tied the threads of the tzizit, the fringes, on the four corners. As we did so, we symbolically bound ourselves more strongly to each other and our spirits felt even more connected to the divine. None of us could have predicted that this weekend would have been so emotionally, spiritually powerful and moving and that we would have felt the presence of the Divine wrapped around our shoulders so completely.

Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) exemplifies this same idea. God tells Moses to gather gifts “terumah” from the Israelites to build a sanctuary in order that God may dwell among the people.  “Everyone whose heart so moves them” shall bring gifts. God understood that the people could not relate to a transcendent God, a God who was distant and seemed far removed from them. The goals for the building of this portable sanctuary in the wilderness was to strengthen the sense of community by the creation of a special legacy where each person could both see themselves reflected in their unique contributions, while drawing God into their midst at the same time. When the sanctuary was complete, the hope would be that everyone would feel God’s presence and feel connected to God.

The Torah seeks to clarify the purpose of the sanctuary when God instructs Moses to tell the people:  “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham – and let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” (Exodus 25:8).

What do these words really mean?  Was God telling the people that without a sanctuary, a building, a place for the Ark of the Covenant, or altars for sacrifice, they would not sense the Divine presence in their lives?  Does God truly require a building in order to “dwell” among human beings?  What does it mean for God to “dwell within” the people – what does this tell us about our relationship with God?

Commentators are intrigued by the notion that God will not dwell in the sanctuary, but rather, dwell “within them” (i.e., the people).  It is the physical act itself of building the sanctuary which will cause God to dwell within the people.  The sanctuary is not for God, it is for the people; it is to be a visible symbol of God’s presence in their midst.  God’s promise to dwell among the people is a recognition of the limitations of human beings in trying to understand that God is everywhere.  The tabernacle is a concession to humankind and provides a visible focus for the idea of God’s indwelling. 

Therefore, it is not the physical space itself which causes God’s presence to come into our midst, and it is not the physical space itself that is holy.  It is the involvement of the community, expending its labor on God’s behalf.  It is the act of the community joining together to make a sacred space.  It is the rituals that take place within that space that bring God’s presence into the midst of the people.  The purpose of the involvement of all the people in building the tabernacle by having them bring precious gifts was, as Torah commentator Pinchas Peli explains, to “convert the people from passive participants in their relationship with God, as constant recipients of God’s gifts, into active partners.”[i] 

The indwelling of God among the people cannot take place as long as the people are passive, doing nothing to help bring the sacred into the world.  God is saying, “My dwelling among them is on condition that they make the sanctuary.”  We must do the building to glorify God.  This is emphasized in the text by the Hebrew verb la’asot – to make.  It occurs 200 times in the story of the building of the sanctuary.

God wants to live among us, and God wants us to feel that divine love in an intimate way.   Commentator Isaac Abravanel reinforces this when he says: “The Divine intention behind the construction of the Tabernacle was to combat the idea that God had forsaken the earth and that His [sic] throne was in heaven and remote from humankind.  To disabuse them of this erroneous belief, God commanded them to make a Tabernacle, as if to say that God lived in their minds…in order to implant in their hearts His [sic] presence.”[ii]

What does this mean for us as modern Jews living in 2023? It means that each one of has the ability to use our special gifts to create and enhance community and to bring God’s presence into our midst. We just need to remind ourselves that it is we who will bring God’s presence into our midst by making sure we are active participants in the process.

[i] Pinchas Peli, Torah Today:  A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, (Washington, D.C.:  B’nai Brith Books, 1987), pg. 82.
[ii] As quoted by Nehama Liebowitz, Studies in Shemot, (Jerusalem, Israel, The World Zionist Organization Press, 1983) pg. 472.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).