Parshat Terumah is the first of three parshiyot dedicated to building a sacred meeting place for interaction between God and human beings. The children of Israel were asked to dedicate tremendous resources to this project and responded in kind. The reason for their generosity was obvious – God’s promise to dwell among His people: “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8).
The idea of a “sacred center” – a religious focal place was integral to the Jewish tradition, witness the importance of the sanctuary in the desert and the primacy of the First and Second Temples. It should be noted, however, that there were other voices in the tradition which found the idea that God “needed” a dwelling place theologically questionable. One can witness such a debate in the days of the return from Babylonian exile where some prophets like Haggai advocated vigorously for the rebuilding of the Temple while the author of the last chapter of Isaiah argued against its necessity. (See Haggai 1; Isaiah 66:1)
At times this debate rested on pragmatic grounds, namely, the serious expense which would be incurred in difficult times. At other times, the deliberation was purely theological. The following discussion, found in a midrash, captures the crux of the issue in a dialogue between God and Moshe – “Rabbi Yudah bar Simon in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three things Moshe heard from the Almighty and was startled and taken aback. When God said to him: ‘Make Me (God) a sanctuary’; Moshe said before the Holy One Blessed be He, ‘Master of the World, behold, the heavens and the heavens above the heavens cannot contain You and You ask that we build You a sanctuary?’ The Holy One Blessed be He responded, ‘It is not like you think; even though the sanctuary is only twenty boards wide to the north and twenty boards wide to the south and eight boards wide to the west, I shall descend and contract My Divine Presence (the Shekhina) to be among you down below, as it is written: ‘And I (God) will meet with you there.’ (Exodus 25:22) …” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 2:10 Mandelbaum ed. p. 33)
In this midrash, Moshe presents God with what seems to him a theological anomaly. How can God, who is omnipresent, be contained in a sanctuary produced by human beings? God admonishes Moshe, making clear to him that the nature of God’s presence is a paradox which does not adhere to human understanding. In other words, God can be both all-present and in a confined space all at once. The rabbinic tradition abounds in possible explanations for this phenomenon. One poignant parable describes the paradox this way – “Rabbi Yehoshua from Sikhnin in the name of Rabbi Levi [said]: To what could the Tent of Assembly be compared? To a cave located on the edge of the sea. The sea’s waves overtake the cave and flood it, filling it with sea water, but the sea remains undiminished. So, too, the Tent of Assembly is filled with the light of God’s presence.” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 1:2 Mandelbaum ed. p.4)
These rabbinic attempts to explore the nature of God’s interaction with the world help us come to terms with how we interrelate to the Divine. At once, we have a sense of a Presence which is total and all encompassing – infinite and ineffable (Heschel’s expression) – a presence which inspires awe but is beyond intimacy. On the other hand, we yearn for intimacy and a sacred space provides human beings with a opportunity for achieving it – in the Sanctuary, in the Temple or in a synagogue, a shul, a shtibel or a beit midrash.