Terumah: Building a Space for the Sacred

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

The book of Exodus is a story with three distinct sections: the
liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the building of
the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Beginning with this week’s
Torah portion, Terumah, the book of Exodus shifts its focus from
the “big-picture” religious and social laws of the previous two
portions to the design details of the Mishkan.

At first, the shift seems jarring, especially since the details of the
building of the Mishkan are often repeated – first given to Moshe,
and then recounted again when they are actually carried out. The
revelation at Sinai was such a big, dramatic event- with fire and
smoke and shofar sounds- that reading the rest of Exodus can
be (and has been) compared to studying the user’s manual for a
VCR or new computer; the level of detail, and lack of drama, can
make the eyes glaze over. (Trust me on this last point, I see it
from the bimah every year.)

So what’s it all about, and what are we supposed to get from all
these architectural instructions?

To me, one of the lessons in this shift from the Big Dramatic
Event at Sinai to the “VCR Manual” of building the Mishkan is the
very fact that life does not usually consist of Big Dramatic Events
on mountain tops, but is instead a daily struggle to fit our
spiritual commitments into the mundane details of ordinary life.
What happened at Sinai can be compared to those once-in-a-
lifetime events that forever change us: falling in love, the death of
a loved one or an encounter with our own mortality, being utterly
overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, a deep spiritual experience
in prayer or meditation, a flash of insight after a period of
searching and introspection.

Then the challenge becomes: OK, now what? How do I stay true
to my experience and my uplifted ideals while working, fulfilling
the obligations of family life, going on errands, being part of a
community, fixing broken appliances, doing my taxes, and so
on?

What the Mishkan represents is a shift that happens to many
people along their journeys: the transition from a life-changing
experience to the need for a regular spiritual practice, in order to
stay true to, and recreate, those extraordinary moments. The
Israelites could not stay at the base of Mt. Sinai forever, and
neither can an individual always expect to have dramatic bursts
of transformative spirituality. Instead of meeting God on the
mountain top, the Israelites had to proactively create a structure
to bring themselves into God’s Presence at precisely the same
time that they were dealing with all the distractions of figuring out
how to move a whole nation across the wilderness. (And you
think <you’ve> got some logistical problems. . . .)

Thus, the very building of the Mishkan, with all its attention to
detail, is itself the larger lesson: if we want to bring God into our
lives, we’re going to have to create spaces for that to happen, as
our ancestors did. By “spaces” I don’t primarily mean physical
places, though clearly a beautiful setting for worship helps open
the heart and focus the mind. A physical place for worship is only
meaningful if we come into it with humility and love; the space
we have to create is within ourselves (and often, in our
schedules) so that God can be part of the journey.

Spirituality rarely “just happens;” more often, it’s a daily
discipline, in the context of busy and distracted lives. In English,
we say “the devil is in the details,” but I think this week’s Torah
portion teaches the opposite: that by carefully and mindfully
creating spaces for the sacred, we can encounter the Divine
where we actually are, with no mountain tops required.

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