The parashat hashavua this week begins with a command: “Tell the Israelite people that when they take up an offering for Me; every person whose heart is moved to generosity can make that offering.” (Exodus 25.2) This begins the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the sacred space in which the Israelite people would focus upon being in God’s Presence (Hebrew: Shekhinah).
True, many generations later we are used to the teaching that God’s presence may be found anywhere; but that does not keep us for needing special, sacred places ourselves – places that serve as agreed-upon meeting places for us to come together for no less than the purpose of experiencing theShekhinah, the close and intimate Presence of God.
You who belong to a shul, or are considering joining one, might not have thought of your shul that way: as a place where you come to focus upon the experience of being immersed in God’s Presence. But if the place is devoid of that possibility, it may be beautiful, but it’s not a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Shekhinah; conversely, the shabby rooms of our European shtetl dwelling ancestors were sometimes so full of that awareness that those who prayed there were able to rise above their everyday miseries because of the bliss of that awareness.
The parashah goes on to describe exactly how the Mishkan is to be built, in great detail. Facsimiles of this structure have been constructed on the web, in miniature, and – I’ve been told but have not seen – in full size, somewhere in the Negev. Gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, woods of various kinds – but the most important detail is given us at the start: all must be built out of material which is terumah, translated in two ways: “separated”, and “lifted up”.
Separated (Rashi): Halakhah guides us to understand that out of all our regular possessions and resources we should separate the first and best out for God. This is also the idea behind the ma’aser, “tithe”, which our farmer ancestors were to bring of their crops. Until the appropriate tithes had been separated out and given appropriately, the rest of the crop was not kasher (literally, “fit”), and could not be eaten. That which is kosher, in other words, is that which reflects our own spiritual awareness of the blessing of a successful crop, or job, or project. It is not ours, not all ours – as the President put it in a sound bite that could not be savaged quite to death, “you didn’t build that”. None of us builds alone: we are part of a fantastic network of support, resources and factors beyond our control, and our response to our own successes should be humble gratitude, not the self-celebrating arrogance of believing that we have power.
Lifted up (Zohar, II): As the Jewish mystics intuited, everything in our existence is made of the same stuff. Everything has within it a spark of G-d; not only human beings but all of the material world – even gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, and woods of various kinds. One should not overlook the holy potential of any object, much less any person. What makes the difference is, as the Torah indicates, the “heart moved to generosity”. The spark of holiness in any object is lifted up through the mindfulness of the one who makes the offering. That is true of the offering we make of our words and acts as well.
An offering made by rote, or with resentment, can never be part of a mishkan.
No volunteer work undertaken for a shul done with anger, annoyance or the hope of being noticed will ever evoke the Shekhinah.
But every offering made by one whose heart is moved to generosity, large or small, obvious or unmarked, lifts up the offering and its holy potential all the way to God’s Presence.
This is the only way we make a mishkan, a shul, into a sacred space, and it is more beautiful by far than a gilded, ornate building created without true terumah.
May you see the beauty of your offering of volunteer activity, tzedakah, and committee work as a true terumah and the very sacred essence of the Mishkan, both inside and outside of organized Judaism.