Parshat Terumah 5778: To Dwell Among Us
In this week’s parsha, God commands the nation: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – “Make for Me a Sanctuary – so that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). The people are inspired and contribute to the construction.
The Psikta recounts an amazing occurrence. When the decree came to Moshe for the Nation to build a sanctuary, Moshe literally shook and exclaimed,
“How can man make a house for G-d?!” And God answered, “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to your own capabilities.”
The Chofetz Chaim concludes from this Midrash that G-d does not unfairly critique man for his shortcomings; rather He asks only that we try, to the best of our abilities.
I would like to focus on this intriguing back-and-forth between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and Moshe. Firstly, why is Moshe “shaken”? What is so shocking about Hashem’s request to build a Mishkan? Perhaps Moshe’s great astonishment was that he found it difficult to fathom that G-d could manifest Himself in this world.
If so, we can still ask: why is Moshe shocked only now? Didn’t the Shechina previously come down at Har Sinai (Ibid. 19:20)? Furthermore, what did Hashem respond to Moshe which then resolved his question? And finally a third question: what can we glean practically for ourselves from G-d’s response?
The essence of G-d
I would like to suggest that Moshe’s shock was rooted in a deep and fundamental difficulty pertaining to the essence of G-d. The Greek and Roman philosophers, l’havdil, wrestled with a question: How can G-d, Who is יושב במרום (dwells in the supernal realms), be “concerned” with the menial ways of man?1 Man is inherently physically limited, debased with desires and selfish needs.
Different philosophers arrived at two separate and distinct responses.
Some said that G-d is in fact so holy that He is removed from this world entirely. Aristotle, the “father of western philosophy,” explained his concept of G-d – “The Unmoved Mover”– as that of an unfeeling, removed Power Who is involved in deep Self-contemplation (The Middle Platonism by John Dillon – Cornell University Press 1977). Meaning that G-d’s “interests” are above and beyond the base thoughts of man.
Alternatively, they explained that G-d (or gods by their perception) were made in the image of man, and were just as debased, selfish and petty as man could be; this is evidenced by the Greek mythologies of rampant licentiousness and jealousy on the part of their deities.
The Jewish philosophy is completely different
However, Judaism has a wholly different philosophy on the essence of G-d, and we can see this totally divergent idea from the Psikta quoted above. In responding to Moshe, G-d says: “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to man’s capabilities.”
G-d was in essence telling Moshe that not only is He interested in our actions, but He desires to dwell among us too! This, I believe, is the depth and beauty of G-d’s call to man “Make me a sanctuary.” The Torah’s concept of G-d is the synthesis of these two, seemingly, divergent philosophies: the loftiness of G-d’s essence, coupled with His deep desire to connect with us.
This idea can perhaps elucidate for us another issue once raised by a student of mine. Human civilizations has for millennia been engaged in building centers of worship, altars, and great monuments to their idols. Some archeological digs have even unearthed ruins that have had a similar floor plan to the Mishkan. The student was bothered by this, wondering: what makes the endeavor of the Jewish people to build the Mishkan so unique?
Perhaps the Jews in the desert were just like any other developing nomadic tribe that felt strengthening of tribal bonds through building a communal altar to worship, similar to Stonehenge in England, the Ziggurats in Mesopotamia and other similar feats of architecture. What made the Mishkan, and by proxy the Jewish people, any different?
G-d reaches out to man
To answer this question, I heard from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yechiel Perr Shlit”a the following idea that I believe provides the proper approach: Human history is rife with man’s desire to reach out to G-d. However, the building of the Mishkan marked the first time in recorded human history that the building of a monument was preceded by G-d reaching out to man to “Make me a sanctuary.”
This made the Mishkan a different structure entirely – at its core. For while the building is built from man’s actions, it is initiated by G-d’s directive. The call to build G-d a sanctuary infuses its every vessel with sanctity. Now it has become elevated to a G-dly level. So while it may look the same as other “sanctuaries,” its essence was not anything of this world.2
This is an important lesson for us, as we should know and strengthen this idea that G-d is not only interested in our lives, but wishes to “dwell” within them. He infuses all of our “menial” actions with holiness and meaning, when we answer His call.
Thus, it is fitting to end with the famous quote attributed to the Alshich:
ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם: בכל אחד ואחד
G-d desires to dwell within every individual.
We would be wise to open the door to let Him in.
1 See Rashi in Bamidbar (24:3) regarding Bilaam. G-d made Bilaam blind because he found preposterous the idea that G-d would be interested in the “lowly ways of man”: ורבותינו אמרו (נדה לא.) לפי שאמר (במדבר כ״ג:י) ומספר את רובע ישראל שהקב”ה יושב ומונה רביעותיהן של ישראל מתי תבא טפה שנולד הצדיק ממנה. אמר בלבו מי שהוא קדוש ומשרתיו קדושים יסתכל בדברים הללו ועל דבר זה נסמית עינו של בלעם. Thanks to Rav Chaim Pollock Shlit”a for directing me to this source.
2 There is a very interesting Sicha from the The Lubavitcher Rebbe, where he explains the difference between the Kiyum Mitzvot prior to Matan Torah and after. Basing this on a Midrash, He explains that before Matan Torah, Mitzvot that were performed by a person did not bestow upon an object a kedusha, for how can man endow a cheftza with kedusha? This is something that only G-d can do! But after Matan Torah the cheftza has kedusha because of the direct commandment. This is in line with Rav Perr’s idea, but more globally – that physical objects are infused with a special level of holiness through G-d commanding it. Many thanks to Rav Ally Ehrman Shlit”a for showing me this sicha.