Whenever we read this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, I find myself thinking of amazing moments I’ve experienced in nature, like the Shabbat evening my husband and I spent in Sedona. After a short hike, we had settled in close to Cathedral Rock, an area where every vista is Instagram-worthy. With the sun setting behind us, we watched as the mountains glowed brighter and brighter — first a soft rose, then a deep amber, and then suddenly, a stunning, glowing orange. It was the kind of light about which the prayer book says: “The shadows fall, but end of day fills the eye with brightness; the infinite heavens glow, and all creation sings its hymn of glory” (Gates of Repentence, p. 258). And then, just as suddenly, the light was gone: the sun had set. Our eyes still on the scene before us, we began, at the same moment, to spontaneously sing together: “L’cha Dodi likrat kallah. ...” Shabbat had come.
I imagine we can all recall a time and a place when we have been overwhelmed by nature’s beauty, when we have felt at peace, and thoughts seemed to flow more freely: when a sense of awe nearly took our breath away. Perhaps it was on a beach, in the mountains, or when a rainbow stretched across the sky. Wherever our moments have come, many of us can recall a time when we might have exclaimed with the sudden clarity of our patriarch Jacob: “God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).
Why do I think of these moments when I read this week’s Torah portion? Because the key instruction of Parashat T’rumah, the signature command of its text, seems to be antithetical to our experience. We read:
“And let them make Me a sanctuary (mikdash), that I may dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8)
A mikdash, from the same root as kadosh, means something separate and distinct. With all of the amazing settings God has already created — awe-inspiring places where we can encounter the divine presence in the natural world — why would God instruct us to create a structure of our own? If God can be found everywhere, why do we — and why does God — need to come to this specific place named here?
The 19th century Bible commentator, Malbim, explains:
“It says (Ex. 25:8), ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among [or: within] them’ — in them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed., p. 557)
In other words, what invited God’s presence in is not the physical structure we created, but what we showed ourselves to be in creating it. Every act of creation is a manifestation of the divine spark. Yes, at any moment, in any setting, we may suddenly feel God’s presence. We may finally “open up our eyes” and experience God as we marvel at the wonder of Creation. But at the same time that we “find” God in those majestic places, we may feel lost. We may ask in those moments: “God, I think I now have a sense of what You are, but in the presence of such grandeur, what am I?” As the liturgy says: “What are we humans that You are mindful of us? We mortals that You take note of us?” (Psalm 8:5). Yet in a sanctuary — both the ancient Mikdash and our modern-day synagogues — we meet God not around us, but truly amongst us, b’tocheinu, “inside us.”
In the sanctuary, we learn not only what God is capable of, but also what we, as God’s partners, can accomplish. In the sanctuary, we simultaneously protect and transmit the words of Torah. In the sanctuary, our voices blend ancient words with new melodies. In the sanctuary, we come seeking the embrace of the community, and comfort others with our own presence. In a synagogue, we witness all that we have created and we know what we are: We are inheritors from the generations that came before us and the link to those that will follow. And, in the time and space in between, we are God partners in creation.
In the wilderness, as instructed by this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites pooled their resources in order to create a mikdash, a holy dwelling place for the divine. In our day, as Lee Egerton has written, we bring our own gifts to share:
Not precious metals or stones; brightly colored textiles; animal skins, spices, or oil.
We bring You, instead, the gifts of our heart, mind, and spirit, as well as the work of our hands.
We bring You the compassion we show to our loved ones, the patience we extend to our friends, the support we offer to those in need.
We bring You the gift of intellect — the study of Torah, of Talmud, of the guide that is our tradition.
(Adapted from The Covenant of the Soul: New Prayers, Poems and Meditations from the Women of Reform Judaism, p. 19)
We bring You the gift of faith — in our collective and individual powers to change the world around us.
We bring You the gift of hope — that one day, this will be the world You wanted to create.
We bring these gifts, O God, and offer them with an invitation: Dwell in our midst, Adonai. Bless us in our gathering, in the mishkan we create together. And may the inspiration we draw from Your Presence remain with us as we go forth to do your work with renewed energy and purpose.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.
In her commentary on T’rumah, Rabbi Alexander writes about the moving experience of finding God in a sanctuary, and the opportunity the sanctuary presents for us to discover ourselves and our purpose in the generations of the Jewish people.
I want to focus her idea on the most sacred space in the sanctuary — the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark.
Today, the ark is used to hold the Torah scroll(s) and is generally the focal point in the sanctuary towards which we direct our prayers. Our tradition of having a holy ark in the worship space is first found in Parashat T’rumah, and was used by the Israelites to house the sets of stone tablets bearing the commandments that were transmitted to Moses from God on Mt. Sinai.
We are told in Exodus 25:10-11, “They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold — overlay it inside and out — and make upon it a gold molding round about.”
The description continues with details about the system of rings and poles that will be used to transport the ark from location to location on the Israelites’ journey.
Nachmanides, a 13th century Spanish commentator, notices that while many of the instructions in this portion are delivered in the singular, with regard to the ark, the language is plural: “They shall make an ark.” According to his interpretation of Exodus 25:10, the plural language implies that each person contributes to the ark’s construction. He writes, “They should each offer a gold vessel (as material for the construction), or they should help Bezalel (the chief artist and builder) in some small way, or they should have intent (a feeling of joining in the construction).” Nachmanides offers an expansive concept of ways that each person can follow the commandment of building the ark.
We encounter in this interpretation a strong desire to be inclusive of the many ways that people can contribute. Some will give material resources. For others, it is their time and expertise that will have the most impact. Still others will not be capable of donating or volunteering, and we recognize that their desire to do so is a contribution as well. We are at our strongest when we honor each gift of time, treasure, and generosity of spirit that we are fortunate enough to receive.
In addition to inclusivity, there is a deeper reason that everyone is commanded to join in making the ark. The ark is not just a piece of furniture that holds the Torah. It is symbolic of the Torah itself.
Midrash Tanchuma teaches, “The Holy One, blessed be God, commanded all the Israelites to make (the ark), so that not one of them would be able to humiliate a fellow Israelite by saying: ‘I contributed more for the building of the ark than you, therefore I am more learned and have a greater right to it than you do. And since you contributed little to the ark, you will have no portion in the Torah’” (Tanchuma, Vayak’heil 8:1). The ark is the joint project of the entire community because the Torah is the shared inheritance of the entire community.
And so it remains today that the Torah belongs to each individual Jew. Our commitment to the Torah is both the greatest reward we can imagine and our most challenging responsibility. As it says in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” We must guard the Torah, both in its physical ark, and in the greater sense of how we live its commandments each day. It is upon us to treasure it, to observe it, and protect it. And, in accordance with the commandment that each Israelite take part in the building of the ark, we must ensure that Jews everywhere can access the Torah and have a hand in its transmission, in its interpretation, and in the honor and meaning that it brings to our lives.
T’rumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543-558
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 451-472
Haftarah I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.717-718; Revised Edition, 559-560