Terumah: A House of Holiness

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah portion Terumah begins the third section of the book of Exodus, which is the instructions for and completion of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary.

Good morning!

This week we begin reading a difficult section of the book of Exodus; from the grand narrative of the escape from slavery and the drama of the revelation at Sinai we move to the slower-paced and greatly detailed description of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Yet one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah is found amidst the technical plans:

“They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.. . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 25:8)

In Hebrew, there’s an interesting and oft-commented-upon nuance: “in their midst,” from shachanti b’tocham, can be translated as literally “in them,” which turns the verse from a promise about what will happen if you build a sacred space in the middle of the camp to what will happen if you create a sacred space in the soul of each individual.

That’s a lovely interpretation and I commend you to study further the many sources and sermons built on it. Today, however, I want to go the other direction, back to the notion of a physical structure where we experience kedushah, or holiness. Our old friend Rashi (it’s been too long) interprets “they shall make Me a Sanctuary” as “they will make for My Name a house of holiness,” in Hebrew a bayit kedushah.

Now, this is interesting. Remember that the portable Sanctuary, or Mishkan, gets its name from the idea of the Divine Presence “dwelling” in the structure; Mishkan is derived from the word meaning “to dwell,” related to words like neighbor and neighborhood. Rashi, on the other hand, seems to imply that it’s not so much that God “dwells” in the sacred structure (since the Divine Presence is not more one place than another) but that we who enter it have a particular kind of experience there.

That is, we build a “house of holiness” because kedushah– holiness- is our experience of spiritual and ethical expansion and transformation. Much of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus conveys moral and religious practices which help us become a “holy people;” the key point is that it’s our decisions which make the difference. So as I read Rashi, he’s saying: the point is not that God inherently or objectively “dwells” in the Mishkan– or synagogue or shrine or anywhere else- but rather, it’s our responsibility to create places where we are open to our own potential for holiness. In this view, it’s not that the Presence is “in” the Mishkan, and therefore we are transformed, but the other way around: if we build holy places and enter them in humility and radical openness, we may experience the Presence as a result.

This, in turn, is why I wish American synagogues were not named “Temples,” because it’s not the place, but the congregation, that is the significant religious fact. The place reflects the hearts of those who pray there; without open hearts, a synagogue is just stone and mortar. The Presence depends on the people.

Shabbat Shalom,


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