Friday, February 8, 2008

Terumah: the second-oldest profession

The coming week’s parashah, called Terumah, announces the Jewish people’s first fund-raising campaign. The purpose of the fund drive is to build and furnish a mikdash, a sanctuary, for God. (Terumah, usually translated as “gifts,” is singular. It is understood as a collective noun, and in later use denotes that which has been set aside for God.)

Most of the parashah provides information about the design and construction of the mikdash and its furnishings, in detail that many readers find mind-numbing.
Furthermore, despite the wealth of detail, we know remarkably little about the actual design of many of the objects; much seems to be taken for granted.

As a result, it’s a parashah that teachers of weekly Torah classes hope will fall on a vacation day. While it doesn’t, like Tazria, deal with an apparently loathsome skin disease, it is difficult to draw contemporary moral lessons from these instructions.

I remember one adult class, however, in which the participants found it by far the most interesting parashah in the entire Torah. The class consisted mostly of engineers, and only the unavailability of a CAD program that measured in cubits kept them from building a mishkan in the parking lot.

Nevertheless, parashat Terumah does address a question that still concerns is: where can we find God?

References throughout the Bible suggest a preoccupation with keeping track of God’s location and remembering where there have been previous encounters with God. Consider the number of times the Torah narrative returns to Beth-El, for example. After Jacob’s dream there (Genesis 28), he erects a pillar and pours oil on it. We tend to read that as a sign of respect. An odd footnote in the Plaut commentary cites an ancient belief that gods lived in stones, but Jacob says nothing to suggest that he attributes his dream to the stone. Perhaps his real intention is to “mark the spot” in case he needs to find it again.

As teachers, we tell children that God is everywhere. This belief in God’s immanence is reassuring, but it can be hard to maintain belief in a God who is wholly and perpetually immanent. There are just too many times when God seems distant or absent.

And yet it would be even harder to maintain belief in a God who is totally transcendent. The rationale given in Terumah for building a mikdash shows us how Hebrew religion reconciled these two ideas of God: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8).

The idea is that the mikdash is God’s pied à terre, the place where a transcendent God can be found on earth. Later writings elaborate this idea considerably and apply it to the Temple in Jerusalem, the beit ha-mikdash.

Sometimes we also teach children that the synagogue is “God’s house.” While the synagogue inherits some of the attributes of the beit ha-mikdash, this is an oversimplification and a trivialization. Whatever we might believe about God’s presence in the mikdash, we don’t really believe that God is any more present in the synagogue than elsewhere.

Our tradition defines the synagogue as a house of prayer, study, and assembly. We would do better to teach that the special function of the synagogue is to help us sense God’s presence through prayer and study together.

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