Dyed red ram skins, anointing oil, incense spices, precious stones, smoothed wood – the Mishkan is a full-on luxuriant testament to the tangible love of a people for God. It is also a dizzyingly meticulous list of nuts, bolts and measurements. Terumah details the physical space for containing this particular worship of God.
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל-כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ:
Make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them. Just as with all that I make you see, the form of the sanctuary and the form of all its vessels, you shall it make it so. – Exodus 25.8-9
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Why, asks Vayikra Rabbah, does it say ‘ויקרא אל משה’, ‘God called to Moses’ at the beginning of Vayikra? Why does it need to say that God called to Moses and also that God spoke to him. What’s the difference? Does one need to be ‘called’ for the subsequent interaction to take place, is it personal to Moses or is there something else going on? The midrash sets us going with a heaping handful of options.
Wait, we were talking about Parshat Terumah and its instructions on how to build the Mishkan, weren’t we? Terumah, and its colors and detailed descriptions of measurements and numbers of coverings and beams and infrastructure and aesthetics? Yes, we’re still talking about Terumah, but Vayikra is to Terumah and the other following parshahs on the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) the way the rest of the Torah is to Bereishit. Vayikra tells us what to do in the Mishkan, the architecture of which is instructed in Parshat Terumah. The rest of the Torah tells us how to live in the world created in Bereishit. And so when Vayikra Rabbah, the fifth century CE midrashic compilation on the book of Vayikra, asks this question, we listen, since, even though linearly it seems scripturally premature, it relates to Terumah.
So here’s a curious suggestion the midrash offers to this question:
Another approach to the words, “And He called to Moses.” What is written earlier regarding these words, “And He called to Moses”? Parshat Mishkan [the section on building the Mishkan – Terumah through Pekudei] at Exodus 36.1 says “As God commanded Moses” regarding the building of the Mishkan.
This can be compared to a king who commanded his servant and said to him, “Build me a palace.” On every single item which the servant built, he wrote the name of the king on it. When he built walls, he wrote the name of the king on them. When he erected columns, he wrote the name of the king on them. When he installed beams, he wrote the name of the king on them.
After some time, the king entered into the palace. On every single thing upon which the king cast his gaze, he found his name written! He said, “All this great honor was afforded to me by my servant and I am on the interior and he is outside?” The king called the servant to enter into the inner part of the palace.
So too, when The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses, “Build me a Sanctuary,” [Exodus 25.8], on every single matter, Moses wrote, “As God commanded Moses.” The Holy One said, “All of this great honor was given to me by Moses and I’m inside and he is outside?!” God called to Moses to enter the inner place, and therefore it says, “And He called to Moses.” –Vayikra Rabbah 1.7
Moses, who was uniquely able to see God face to face and also have the perspective of seeing the outside of the Mishkan, is invited into the Mishkan. This midrash depicts God as undesiring of this monument of dedication, if it is not actually to be inhabited by Moses.
Indeed, this midrash may be telling us something extraordinary about the relationship between God and Moses, about the loving trust of a teacher and student, the investment of a parent in a child, the selflessness of a true leader. It is also telling us something simple about the merit of perspective.
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The dominant topos in the description of our experience leaving Egypt is sight. From Moses seeing the burning bush [Exodus 3.3] to us seeing the Divine in the miraculous crossing of the sea [Exodus 15.2] to seeing the sounds of divine revelation [Exodus 20.15] and, in last week’s parshah, Mishpatim, looking upon God while eating and drinking [Exodus 24.11], the visual aspect is rife. It is never more apparent than with Moses, who looks upon God and lives.
Moses, whose identity is born of being both internal and external concomitantly, is able to inscribe the Mishkan with its divine authorship — and to have the perspective to see it from the outside and the inside. The Mishkan itself is a construction of hiddenness. There are secret seams of gold hidden within wooden panels; there are bright blue threads sewn into a tapestry with other colors drowning it out; there are curtain rings that join top and bottom but are not all visible at the same time. The riddling design of the Mishkan is such that you cannot see all its beauty in one go.
Terumah marks a transition from seeing the Divine among ourselves directly to imagining it. Instead of it being the first thing we see, we have to recognize that there are layers and treasures hidden from view. Instead of being the ones to exclaim ‘This is my God’ by pointing at the miracle in front of us, we say ‘I will beautify Him.’ The Mishkan’s beauty comes not only from the sumptuous fabrics and lush arrangements but also from the element of giving which each person endows in order to make it.
When Moses writes God’s name on each element of the Mishkan and he does it in his own signature handwriting, although he has not donated a physical object, he has donated his love and dedication in words. God demands that a relationship be built by volunteering of ourselves so that we are invested, either in actions or by signing down our support of the Divine.
Perhaps Terumah’s transition from direct to indirect sight, offering words as an opportunity for connection is a suggestion of how we can respond to being ‘called’ to those moments in life when a real difference can be made. The midrash guides us on how to give of yourself if you don’t feel you have anything to give. And beauty comes from that.