Becoming a Dwelling Place for the Divine

This week’s Dvar Torah has been adapted from one written by Helaine Sheias, Ph.D., a graduate of The Mussar Institute’s Yesod and Manchim facilitator training programs. Helaine currently facilitates several Mussar courses and is a Certified Yoga Therapist and Founder of Yinspiration Yoga.

Image by Of The Land

This week’s Parashat Terumah (Shemot/ Exodus 25:1 - 27:19) focuses on all of the details involved in building the Mishkan/ Sanctuary that the Israelites were commanded to construct as they wandered in the wilderness.
While I deeply appreciate and honor the ‘engineering’ aspect of the building of the Mishkan, and the significance of all the specifications and details, I have come to understand the building of the Mishkan as akin to a four-direction compass for the spiritual infrastructure of the Jewish people. In the current state of mayhem and upheaval that we are all experiencing, this compass allegory is especially important today.
The word for compass in Hebrew is matzpen from the root tzadi - peh - nunTzafone means North. Matzpoon means conscience. The following three attributes are interconnected to the essential meaning of the Mishkan and can be understood as the ‘True North’ (or the “North Star” used for navigation) of Jewish Spiritual inquiry:

  • The Mishkan as a structure built by acting upon the generosity/n’divut of our hearts and by individuals who the Torah describe as yidvenu libo - one whose “heart is moved” (Shemot/ Exodus 25:2).
  • The Mishkan as God’s home and place of dwelling in the world with us.
  • The Mishkan as the ‘blueprint’ for the Spiritual Development of the community of Israel.

In The Mussar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Joseph Meszler writes on this week’s portion through the prism of the middah / soul trait of n’divut / generosity:

The first instance of n’divut is found at the very beginning of the Torah portion: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved’” (Exodus 25:1–2). God tells the Israelites to bring these gifts in order to make a Mishkan/ Tabernacle (literally “dwelling place”) so that God “may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The phrase yidvenu libo (ידְִבֶּנוּ לִבוּ, “whose heart is so moved”) means “generous of heart.” Unlike taxes or other requirements of the people, the gifts in this portion are to be offered freely, without coercion." [1]

Yidvenu libo teaches that recognizing one's generosity of the heart is a catalyst for spiritual activism. As the devoted builders of the Mishkan, the Israelites must ‘bring’ and ‘contribute' from a place within their soul to God and the Jewish community.
Rashi explains the unusual phrase v’yikchu li terumah (“Bring me gifts”) by noting, “li: lishmi–for Me: for My Name/shem.” These contributions to the Mishkan must be given for the sake of God alone, without thought for personal benefit. From a Mussar perspective, this is an essential aspect of n’divut, generosity or kindheartedness.
The construction of the Mishkan requires more than the simple allocation of resources. It demands heartfelt identification with the Tabernacle and a type of spiritual motivation that goes far beyond self-interest.
Parashat Terumah also presents the Mishkan as a broadened system that focuses on the ‘collective,’ rather than purely ‘individual’ action.
The Torah conveys how to build the structures of the Tabernacle by usually utilizing the second person singular-- “you shall make.” Yet, when Torah commands “they shall make the ark” (Shemot/ Exodus 25:10) the language switches to the third person plural.
The Or HaChaim, [2] an 18th-century Moroccan commentator, picks up on this inconsistency, explaining that the Mishkan illustrates an individual’s responsibility within the framework of the Jewish nation as a whole:

No single individual can perform all the precepts of the Torah. For instance, a priest cannot fulfill the bestowing of the 24 priestly gifts… while an Israelite cannot fulfill the positive commands of the sacrifices…But taken as a whole, the nation of Israel, B’nei Yisrael, the community of Israel, can keep these mitzvot/ commandments.

The Mishkan depended on a unique spiritual interconnectedness of all members of the Israelite community. It is this spiritual connectedness that allows for a unified connection to God and creates God’s home in the world.
How is this connection to God expressed? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel [3] writes: “God, we are told, asks not only for ’works,’ i.e., for action, but above all for love and awe."
These aspects of relationship can be found in the interweaving of the terms Mikdash (“sanctuary”) and Mishkan (“dwelling place” or “tabernacle”) throughout our parashah.
The great Mussar teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler [4] writes:

The Desert Tabernacle, the details of whose construction take up the whole of parashat Terumah and much of the succeeding parshiyot, is sometimes called “sanctuary” [mikdash]. More frequently, however it is called mishkan, which means “dwelling place.”
The meaning of mishkan—the dwelling place (so to speak) of Hashem…creates a closeness between us and Hashem, a sense of joy and satisfaction…
Mikdash, on the other hand, means a place of holiness. Holiness means transcendence. We feel the absolute gulf which separates the Creator from His creatures. Our response must be service—offerings and prayer…

Mishkan (dwelling or resting place) cultivates a sense of closeness and acceptance. God rests the Divine presence among us … there is a closeness between us and Hashem, which invites a sense of joy and satisfaction.
Mikdash means a place of holiness and yirah (reverence). This implies a sacred space of transcendence.
Mishkan represents the sense of joy we may experience through the immanent presence of Hashem, while Mikdash represents the sense of awe we may experience through the transcendent aspect of HashemTogether, these form a spiritual tapestry of shleimut/wholeness.
Used interchangeably, these two terms allude to the underlying deep relationship between these two concepts, a relationship that points to something beyond the physical sanctuary being described. 
The Torah is revealing to us that we are not only supposed to build a physical structure known as the mishkan, but perhaps more importantly, we are to make ourselves into a dwelling place for the Divine. And how do we become a mishkan or dwelling place for the Divine? By looking to its cognate, the term that is used along with it—mikdash/ sanctuary from the root ‘sacred’ or ‘holy.’ We become a dwelling place for the Divine by making ourselves into a dwelling place for sacredness, for kedusha-Holiness and Godliness.
As a seeker of spiritual excellence, and journeyer on the path of Mussar, I find Parashat Terumah an invigorating wake-up call.
First, we must examine how we give of ourselves and ensure that we are doing so with a generosity of heart and spirit, for the sake of Heaven and not for recognition or material gain.
Second, there are times that the Holy One is encountered through transcendence— those awesome, sometimes fearsome, experiences that help us recognize how small we are in this universe and how miraculous our lives truly are. And there are times that the Divine is encountered through immanence— those intimate moments in which Divinity dwells within us and is as close as the breath we take.
Finally, we come to recognize that when we pursue holiness, elevating our lives beyond the mundane, striving for personal righteousness and societal justice, we indeed invite the Divine to dwell within us. And this is essentially the path of Judaism— the ceremonies and rituals, the laws and customs, are all designed to help us build ourselves as God’s Mishkan or Mikdash so that as individuals and together as a people we can become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (to quote an earlier part of Shemot/ Exodus 19:6)

  • What do you see as your terumah / donation to the Jewish people and the community at large?
  • Imagine how your spiritual matzpen/ compass can help you relate to the teachings of Parashat Terumah from a Mussar perspective. How can you strengthen and solidify your sense of “God Dwelling within you”? What might you do to create this sacred dwelling?

[1] The Mussar Torah Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2019, page 119.
[2] Chaim ibn Attar or Ḥayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (circa 1696 - 1743), also known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim after his popular commentary on the Pentateuch, was a Talmudist and Kabbalist. He is arguably one of the most prominent Rabbis of Morocco.
[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians philosophers of the 20th century. Heschel, a professor who taught for most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, authored a number of widely read books and was a leader in the civil rights movement. Based on God in Search of Man, page 283.
[4] Michtav Mey-Eliyahu, volume 4, pages 294-5; Strive for Truth, volume 5, pages 220-1.

Shabbat Shalom