“Meeting the Divine”
By Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins, ’04 & ’15
Parashat Terumah is focused on one thing, the building of the Mishkan, the travelling sanctuary known as the Tabernacle. So important is this structure that 15 chapters are devoted to it. The Mishkan is central to the development of the people as a community, their new work ethic, the concretization of Shabbat, sharing in a project for the first time, and most importantly developing a relationship, as a group and as individuals, with God.
Previously, in Yitro, we read of the momentous experience of the Israelites at Sinai. Four hundred years of slavery had certainly left its mark on the people. The pain, suffering, loss and disintegration of the soul had taken their toll. Exposure to the gods of Egypt and the power wielded by Pharaoh were their reality. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was a distant understanding. Yet, the midrash of Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer teaches that because of three things God brought the Israelites out of Egypt: 1) they did not change their language; 2) they did not change their names; and 3) they did not slander one another. Because of these, as well as the promise to give the people the Promised Land, God brought the Israelite ex-slaves to Sinai.
The Sinai experience was to bring God and the people together, to truly meet, behold one another, and to create a bond that would lead to a Covenant to be shared throughout time. Let us imagine God’s anticipation of this exciting moment. God comes to meet the people, connect in a visceral way and finally have the partnership He/She has longed for, solidifying a foundation for the betterment of each human being, creature and natural element. God tells Moshe that the people should spend three days readying themselves for this Holy gathering. God like the joyful bridegroom, anticipating His meeting with His beautiful bride, arrives with great exuberance. The scene is beyond imagination with thunder, lightning, smoke, flames and a blaring shofar. However the people merely shudder and tremble. This is what I would call a first date gone bad! Instead of running toward their beloved, the people tell Moshe, “You speak with us and we shall hear, let not God speak with us for we shall die” (Exodus 20.15). The people were terrified. They rejected their groom, for the power of His presence was way beyond comprehension; it was traumatic.
What happened? Torah has led us to this moment but the power of this liminal encounter has overwhelmed and pushed the people away instead of drawing them close. Imagine what God felt in this moment – utter despair, rejection, and sheer demoralization from this encounter. Plagues and miracles had set the stage, but wonderment was an abject failure.
Why did that parshah focus on this ‘high point’ with all of its intensity? It is to teach God’s own learning of how to meet and embrace the people. Thus it is followed in Terumah’s focus on the Mishkan, a compromise, one of its purposes being to create a safe and human scale environment where God and the people could meet. It is an act of tzimtzum – a concept introduced by the great Kabbalist, R. Isaac Luria, describing creation as God’s contracting so that something new could be birthed into existence. The Mishkan represents an act of tzimtzum, God’s recognition of the need to pull back, reduce the flames and the blasts, so that the people would be able to receive the presence of the Holy One.
This is a great teaching for each one of us. We must stay tuned in to the impact we have on others, particularly when we extend the power of our presence by how loud, how verbose, how controlling, how punitive or even how rejecting we can be. We must meet the ‘holy’ other with sensitivity and an awareness of our behavior. The Mishkan would come to represent both the visible and hidden presence of the Holy One. It is a place to welcome each and every Israelite and forge a relationship, like a marriage, with its ups and downs, which would continue until the present.