Torah Reading for Week of February 19 – 25, 2012
By Rabbi Andrew Feig, ‘07
Growing up in the Midwest, I was not very different from other middle-class children; I had an insatiable appetite for stuff. I wanted the newest toys, burgeoning new video games (post-Pong), Dingo cowboy boots, and an Adidas sweat suit. Material possessions seemed to satisfy short-term cravings, but in the end, I kept wanting more. Today, children suffer from material dis-ease; look at gadget envy and upgrade fever. They are constantly on the lookout for the latest and greatest tech toys, laptops, and clothing. As adults, we can understand how kids can get hooked, but children are not the only ones afflicted with stuff sickness. Many adults fall prey to the allure of smartphones, smart cars, LED TVs, and, hip clothes.
The point is we never seem satisfied with what we have. Material possessions don’t seem to fulfill or even temper some deeper craving. Why not?
The answer may come in this week’s parasha. In Parashat Terumah, we are immediately introduced to the building of the Mishkan, the wilderness Tabernacle through which the Israelites worship G-d. Through varied and generous gifts (terumot) from the Israelites, the Mishkan is constructed as an abode for G-d: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) The Mishkan’s construction follows on the heals of the Mt. Sinai narrative, which recounts G-d’s revelation to Moses and the Israelites.
The juxtaposition between the fiery, mystical experience of Sinai and an almost mundane description of a construction site is jarring. Why does the description of the building of the Mishkan immediately follow the giving of the laws? There are two traditional, but opposing answers, to this question. One is given by Ramban, the Spanish medieval commentator, who says that the Children of Israel are now ready to build a house to G-d following this intense revelatory experience. The Mishkan is a constant reminder of the Sinai experience that they can carry with them in their travels. The other answer is given by Rashi, the French medieval commentator, who says that although the Torah describes the building of the Mishkan here, it was actually constructed after the sin of the Golden Calf (which the Torah describes much later in Exodus 32). He, and other sources, note that the Mishkan serves as a tool for atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites give their precious metals and gifts as part of their repentance and atonement for the wrong they committed against G-d.
Whether our parasha precedes the apostasy of the Golden Calf or follows it, the Children of Israel, this nascent, newly-born nation, has a craving for the physical, the tangible. In either view, a material focal point is required. The question is, does that material product represent an end in itself or provide a vehicle for spiritual growth? The Mishkan’s construction, described in Rashi’s view, seemed to provide a process for which the Israelites could grow from their dependence on the material culture of Egypt and into a relationship with G-d, a non-corporeal, spiritual being. Even more, the Israelites turned in their material possessions for a spiritual pursuit. Their gold, silver and other precious possessions were the stuff that helped create the actual Tabernacle. Thus, the Mishkan becomes a true vehicle of spiritual transformation, not only in its construction, but in its raison d’être, providing an axis point for divine-human connection.
Material goods are often misunderstood as replacements for spiritual needs. When we take the time to examine our deep-seated desires, we may realize that the solution cannot always be found in the short term or in material items. It may be that we need something that satisfies us deeply and spiritually – a process that may take a lifetime.