In parashat Terumah we are given the instructions for building a sacred place, and a very detailed directive it is. Almost an architect’s blueprint. It seems all the more strange that such a clear and comprehensive picture is drawn for the building in which a totally abstract and absolutely non incarnate God may (or may not) dwell.
The sacred place is described as “mishkan”, the place of dwelling, yet that is decidedly what it is not. It is, instead, a signal to remind the Israelites that God is among them – and God makes this clear in the instructions for the Children of Israel to build the sanctuary – “Make a mishkan so that I will dwell among them.”
The Torah makes clear that this mishkan is to be symbol and metaphor of the relationship between God and the people who are in covenant bond with God. It is to describe, in a variety of different ways, the relationship between them; it will even in some way create the relationship, it will certainly make clear some of the central requirements.
To begin with, God involves and obliges the whole people. “Daber el bnei Yisrael va’yikhu li trumah me’eyt kol ish asher yid’vennu libbo, tikhu li et trumati – Speak to the Israelite people and accept for Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them” (Ex25:2) Because the mishkan is to serve the entire community, it must also be constructed through the involvement of the entire community. But this is not a tax on the people; instead Moses is to accept the free will offerings of the people. The Terumah is specifically something set aside by its owner and dedicated for sacred use. In other words, the people must be in the habit of thinking of their property not as theirs alone, but as something over which they have current charge – much, I suppose, as we are encouraged to think of our children. The use of this property therefore is to do the best we can with it – it is only a loan to us, not our exclusive asset. For the people to give a portion of their property to a sacred purpose, willingly and with the intention of creating a better world, is an implicit assumption behind the building of the mishkan.
The word Terumah is an interesting one. Its root is from RAM – to lift up, to elevate. Presumably it derives from the physical act of lifting up that which is offered to God, but there are Chasidic teachings that the act of offering a gift to God elevates not so much the gift as the giver. We are told that those who collect for charitable purposes must ensure that they have pure intentions before they start, but those who give to charity don’t have to be so worthy – the act of giving purifies them ( (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev/ Shalom of Kaminiki).
So the giving must be from everyone, it must be offered willingly with the understanding that God is the source of all, as part of the working construct that we must acknowledge God’s place in our world.
The mishkan is also the demonstrable proof that the agreement at Sinai is working. When Moses repeated to the Children of Israel all the commands of God and all the rules, at the theophany at Mt. Sinai, we are told that they replied “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will faithfully do” (Ex24:3,7etc) The phrase ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ – ‘we will do and we will understand’ – the literal response of the people, is borne out here in the building of a sacred space which is both the dwelling place and emphatically NOT the dwelling place of God. . In building the mishkan they will take the step into putting into material practise what has only now been a verbal agreement. In building the mishkan they will learn much more about God.
When people built holy places in the ancient world, they were constructed to house the image of the deity to whom they were dedicated. This holy place was different, for there was to be no image at all. It is – if you will pardon the expression – a graphic representation of the non-representation of the Jewish God.
However there was something in the mishkan, and that something was the Ark, the first of the furniture of the mishkan to be described, and lovingly detailed. The Ark and its cover were explicated carefully, and the Torah instructed the people that the ‘Edut’ the witnessing, was to be placed in the Ark. Quite what was it that was to go into the Ark? Edut is an ancient word meaning covenant or treaty – and it seems that what went into the Ark was the physical container of that treaty – the tablets of the brit (covenant), the stones on which were written the ten commandments.
In the ancient Near East, there would be boxes placed under the throne of the ruler, and in those boxes would be placed the laws of the land, and the treaties made with other peoples. In effect, the foundation of the throne of the monarch was a box which stored the laws.
The Ark contained the Edut, the treaty of the children of Israel with God. It is, in effect, the box at the base of the throne of the divine monarch. It would have been very clear to the people of the time that the presence of the Ark pointed up the absence of the throne above it – a clear symbol of the abstractness, yet absolute monarchy of God. Above the Ark was the kapporet, the cover made of a flat sheet of gold, from whose two ends rose two cherubim. God told Moses that he would meet Moses there “I will speak to you from above the kapporet, from between the two cherubim” (Ex 25:22). There is no description of the cherubim, though one can safely assume that they were not the chubby figures of gently winged angelic babies we see depicted in religious art. It may be that they are related in some way to the verb karov, to be near, the word which we use to denote the way of prayer (drawing near) implicit in the making of sacrifice. It may be that they are related to the Akkadian word ‘kuribu’ originally meaning ‘to pray’, but also used to describe creatures which were part human, part bird and part beast, and which would guard the entrance to pagan temples and petition the deities on behalf of the worshippers.
Whatever the cherubim were, they were clearly of significance, not the least being that they symbolised the difference of this understanding of God from any other – they could not petition a deity for there was none in the holy place to petition. Instead they highlighted the abstract nature of the Jewish God, the absence of a discernible throne, the absence of a depiction of the deity. The book of psalms (99:1) describes God as one who is yoshev ha kruvim – the one who rests upon the cherubim. The cherubim, like the Edut, represent the base of the throne of God – a throne which is not built, a throne which will remain empty. When God speaks, it is from above the Ark, from between the cherubim, from a place outside of space.
When all the people willingly bring their offerings to create the place that represents an understanding of God they are still finding difficult (witness the golden calf episode that began this enterprise); when they elevate themselves by giving, when they demonstrate their understanding that God is the source of their wealth and their possessions, when they deliberately build a shrine that is to remain empty, a throne that does not exist, then God dwells among them. The building of the mishkan teaches us so much about Jewish values and Jewish community, and it points out to us the limit of our understanding of God.