Parshat Terumah – “I shall dwell in their midst” – in whose midst exactly?

Parshat Terumah is absent of narrative, focusing exclusively on the materials and design for the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  It opens with a call for voluntary contributions of precious materials that would be needed for the Mishkan, its vestments and rituals with the famous verse; ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם  – and they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)

What is especially off here is that none of the items in the list are for the actual material needed to construct the Mishkan. Notably absent is any call for the wood that will be needed (as we shall see later in the Parsha) for the beams and socket-pediments that comprise the very structure of this sanctuary.

The Parsha then goes on to elaborate seven parts to the process of creating the Mishkan.

  1. Fashioning the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Shewbread and the Menorah (25:10-40.);
  2. The Mishkan’s curtains and curtain hardware, and the covering skins  (26:1-14);
  3. The fashioning of the structural boards, their connective hardware and socket pediments (26:15-30);
  4. The design and installation of the curtain that would separate the Holy of Holies from the Holy (26:31-33);
  5. Instructions for the physical placement of the three objects described earlier – the Ark, the Shewbread Table and the Menorah; and the design and hanging of a screen at the entrance to the Tent (26:34-37);
  6. The design and installation of the Mizbeah, thesacrificial altar (27:1-8);
  7. The design and installation of the court of the Tabernacle (Hatzar ha-Mishkan) (27:9-19) thereby concluding our Parsha.

The sequence of these instructions seems to lack coherence (aside from the fact that the appeal for materials makes no mention of the one material that is at he very core of the construction – not only of the Mishkan itself but of the Ark of the Covenant – namely wood.)

More significantly, it makes little sense to commission the vessels of the Mishkan before attending to its construction. Do we order our furniture before the house is built?

What’s more, if we are already engaged in the fashioning of the Mishkan furnishings, shouldn’t these include the sacrificial altar which is – day in and day out – at the very center of the Mihskan ritual?  Why are Ark, Shewbread Table and Menorah up front while the altar is placed almost at the end, followed only by the outer perimeter of the Mishkan campus?

I would like to suggest that what is happening here is a listing of the Mishkan components not in the sequence of their making, but rather in descending order of holiness and importance.

The first three objects are really what the Mishkan is all about.  The mystical importance of the Ark, Shewbread and Menorah are paramount. It is these three that define the sacrality of the Mishkan as G-d’s dwelling, not the Mishkan itself which merely houses them, and certainly not the Court of the Mishkan which merely delineates its physical parameters.

As for the mizbeah, the sacrificial altar, this, as Maimonides argues, is merely a concession to the people who knew no other way to worship a god than by means of animal sacrifices. As for the incense altar – which does not even make the list here – its purpose was simply to neutralize the slaughterhouse odors. That the Torah pushes the mizbeah to the very bottom of the list – after all the other implements, curtains, dividers, structural elements etc., is a message that sacrifices, far from being what G-d really wants, are indeed only a concession to the Israelites at a more primitive stage in their spiritual evolution. Indeed, our mistaken idea that animal sacrifice was the heart and soul of Jewish spiritual ritual is way off base, and of little use to the A-mighty.

As for the statement “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם ”  perhaps it is referring neither to the Mishkan nor to the Israelites who constructed it. Rather it refers exclusively to the three vessels  – the Ark, the Shewbread Table and the Menorah: ‘ועשו לי מקדש – and they (these vessels) will comprise my sanctuary, ושכנתי בתוכם – and I will dwell within them.  It is within these vessels that G-d dwells.  The Tabernacle/Temple is merely the structure in which they are placed.

G-d – both apart and in our mdist

P’ Terumah begins with G-d’s strange call for voluntary contributions of the materials needed for the construction of the Tabernacle; “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering(ויקחו לי תרומה); from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.” Exodus 25:2

G-d takes it for granted that the Israelites will be generous and indeed donate all the precious metals and materials needed for the Tabernacle. But what is striking about this verse is the fine line that it straddles between asking for donations and demanding them. After all people should “give” their offerings, not have them “taken”.

And what is the purpose of all these semi-voluntary gifts? “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (25:8). Here again there is an inherent paradox. A sanctuary (mikdash) is by definition a place apart. The root ‘KDSh” means separate. Hence there is an essential contradiction between ‘sanctuary’ and ‘in their midst’. In other words, these voluntary/involuntary gifts will be used to build for G-d a place where He can be both apart and a part of the Israelite community.

One can conclude from this that, indeed, the relationship between G-d and man is different from that between humans. G-d arrogates the right to expect voluntary generosity from his People. Yes, it is voluntary, but the only right answer to such a call is an affirmative one. Likewise G-d will dwell among his people, But lest anyone think that this is an altogether cozy situation, He makes it very clear that His being among the Israelites still comes with a serious and inviolate degree of separation.

(I have to than Mrs. Gita Rooz for pointing out that the only parallel in human relations is that between parents and children. Parents have a right to expect voluntary generosity from their offspring whom they created, and even when living in their midst the relationship has its boundaries.)