Terumah – the riddle of the cherubim

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:16-22)

וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם מִשְּׁנֵ֖י קְצ֥וֹת הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ וַ֠עֲשֵׂה כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה מִן־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֖ים עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָֽיו׃ וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃ וְנָתַתָּ֧ אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת עַל־הָאָרֹ֖ן מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְאֶל־הָ֣אָרֹ֔ן תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶתֵּ֖ן אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I have always loved cherubs. It is a love I inherited from my grandmother who had several decorating her homes.  And I too occasionally add to my own collection of sweet faced plump winged babies.

But the cherubim of bible should not be viewed as these somewhat kitsch figures – we do a great disservice to the text to fall into this cosy view.

We first meet the cherubim in the book of Genesis at the denouement of the second creation story: “God drove the human out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24 )

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃ (ס)

Their purpose is to prevent the human beings gaining access back into the garden and eating from the tree of life, something that we know will mean humanity acquiring  eternity, a characteristic of the divine that is denied to mortals.

Wherever the cherubim appear we are in sacred space. While the word appears almost a hundred times in the Hebrew bible, we know very little about them except for the fact they were winged. How many wings seems to be unclear – it varies in different descriptions. Sometimes they are clearly representational figures such as in Solomon’s Temple, at other times God flies in the skies, carried by the cherubim.

“In the Shrine he [Solomon]  made two cherubim of olive wood, each 10 cubits high. [One] had a wing measuring 5 cubits and another wing measuring 5 cubits, so that the spread from wingtip to wingtip was 10 cubits;  and the wingspread of the other cherub was also 10 cubits. The two cherubim had the same measurements and proportions:  the height of the one cherub was 10 cubits, and so was that of the other cherub.  He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the centre of the chamber touched each other.  He overlaid the cherubim with gold.”   These are huge figures, over twenty feet high, with matching enormous wingspans, dominating the inner chamber. Yet we know them to be olive wood, representations – but of what? And to what purpose? Will God speak to the people from above them?

The most famous depiction of the cherubim is that of Ezekiel, who was among those sent into exile with the king in 597BCE (see 2K 24:14-16) At a body of water he calls the Nehar Kevar, (the Kevar canal) he has a vision. This canal appears to be the area in Babylonia where the exiled Jews were settled and is separately documented in Akkadian literature. He documents part of his vision thus:

“The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Kevar Canal. Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. Then the Presence of the Eternal left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the Eternal, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Kevar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.” Ezekiel 10:15-20

Now it is well known in ancient near eastern mythologies – and even in later western ones –  that the divine being rides some kind of chariot pulled by some types of mythic beasts, and I am certain that the cherubim of the bible must have their origin within even older mythologies.   But that doesn’t really explain their presence in our sacred space, using their wings in some kind of protective way, guarding the area between God and us – for God is often depicted as being seated above the cherubim (for example Hezekiah’s prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah speaks of God “enthroned above the Cherubim”

There is no sense of the cherubim being in any way angelic or quasi divine in the Hebrew bible, they fulfil no role in bridging the space between us and God. They simply are there, figures beyond which we cannot see or go.  The idea of their being in some way angelic comes in later commentaries , so while both Rashi and Ibn Ezra see nothing angelic in the cherubim, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 21 suggests that they were beings who were created on the third day, with no definite shape or form, while the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu (10th century) believes them to have been part of the group created before the beginning of our world., Bachya ben Asher  in 14th century Spain also believes they are angels but intriguingly he has a reason – it is important to believe in angels because prophecy can only happen through the mediation of an angel, and given that the God speaks to Moses from above the cherubim, these must logically be angels. There are two of them above the ark, to make clear that they are not the image of the one God.

So while there is much speculation about what the Cherubim might be, their connection to the mythic beasts of other traditions – gryphons or sphinxes, centaurs or Assyrian Lamassu, or the way they may have segued into Judaism from the Akkadian winged bulls the kirubu or the shedim that guarded palaces– the reality is, as is often the case, hidden in the past. So by the time of the Talmud it is clear that no one knew much about the cherubim.  There are several discussions recorded including the one found in Chagigah 13b

“What is the meaning of “cherub”? Rabbi Abbahu said: Like a baby [keravya], for in Babylonia they call a baby ravya. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: However, if that is so, what is the meaning of that which is written: “The first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle”? The face of a cherub is the same as the face of a man; what is the difference between them? He replied: The difference is that the face of a man is referring to a large face, whereas the face of a cherub means the small face of a baby.”

It is from this and other passages that the elision from guardian of the divine mystery to cupid-like plump baby boy has occurred, and we have stopped really asking ourselves about the purpose of the cherubim in the Hebrew bible.

Clearly the cherubim serve God, and clearly too they provide a barrier or boundary between the sacred and the mundane; they prevent us from coming to close to the mystery.

But what do they represent to us? What function do they have? We assume that God does not need the protection the cherubim provide, so are they there to protect us?

There is a wonderful, almost transgressive piece in Talmud about the cherubim and what they were doing.

“Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be God, and the Jewish people.” (Yoma 54a)

Throughout the tradition there is a thread which asks – what do the cherubim say to us, what are they symbolising?

Rav Ketina stretches the point of the almost to breaking in order to teach that the two figures which are touching at the wingtips, (and whose spreading wings as described in the Exodus passage above, uses a phrase also used as a euphemism for sex elsewhere in bible).  So he posits that the two figures looking at each other, touching each other, are symbolic of God and Israel, entwined in a relationship of love. (Even more unusual of course is the idea that the people got to see the cherubim but that is for another day.)

Later commentators take up the male-female balance of the cherubim explicated by Rav Ketina and suggest that this is not symbolising God and Israel, but reminding us of the imperative to have children and create the next generation.

There are other suggestions as to what the cherubim might symbolise – different attributes of God, mercy and justice, the importance of contact with the other, teacher and pupil, study partners, the mystical world and the world we can know, the bringing close and the keeping of boundaries…..

The text tells us that the cherubim are shielding the cover of the ark with their outstretched wings and they are facing each other and also looking slightly downwards at the cover. To me it is an image of a partnership of protection and support. There is something enveloping about those wings creating a space within them as they touch each other, rather as an adult holds a baby, or a comforter holds the comforted, or lovers hold each other close. The fact that they are both gazing towards the thing they are holding, and their faces are turned towards each other adds to the sense of intention. These are no guards to keep away the people seeking God, no fearsome bouncers keeping us out of sacred space, but protective and nurturing figures, taking care of a precious object. Rather like their parallel the Sphinx, they pose a riddle for the traveller, a riddle whose answer is firmly human focused.

They are not angels, but they prefigure what will be as religion becomes institutionalised, and we have to ask ourselves how will we nurture the word of God in our time and space? How will we show love? How will we communicate? How will we see the other who is just like us but who is not us? How will we protect the sacred and yet allow the word of God to come into the world?

The questions implied and threaded through the appearance of the cherubim almost one hundred times in our bible are questions that challenge us. They ask how God is brought into our world, and each one of us is part of the answer.




Parashat Vayakhel: how do you make a community?

How do you make a community?

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: eidah, tzibbur and kehillah, and they each describe a different way of being a group together.

Eidah is the political body, the whole group of people with like minds and values, who have a shared sense of identity and purpose. It comes from the root to witness and in bible it is used to describe the whole Israelite people who travelling together having had, and continuing to have, a shared experience and a shared destiny.

Tzibbur, a later post biblical word for community, comes from a root that is to do with heaping up or piling up, and is generally used to describe the praying community. It is the descriptor of the organising principle of the Jewish religious community, the minyan, the group within which prayer is shared and heard. The word tzibbur implies that there are diverse individuals who are joined together for a particular purpose and time – normally understood to be communal worship activities. The laws of the tzibbur form the conceptual framework of community living; they are predicated on and sustain the spiritual life of the community.

The third word used to describe community – ‘Kehillah’ is something that contains both the meanings of Eidah and Tzibbur and more. It goes beyond being a community of shared prayer and shared mission, and looks towards caring for the health, educational, social and welfare needs of individual Jews. It is what we now think of if asked to define what a community should be, providing not just for our practical and functional needs, not just for our spiritual needs, but for our social activities, our diverse interests, our wellbeing.

The sidra vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the people, causing them to become a ‘kehillah’. From having led them out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, from having caused them to be fed and given water, from having been the stern Lawgiver to the people, approaching God on their behalf, and bringing rules and judgments, Moses now does something quite different for them. He brings together the whole ‘edah’ as a ‘kehilla’ (Vayakel Moshe et col adat bnei Yisrael vayomer alei’hem: eleh hadevarim asher tziva Adonai la’sot otam” – Moses brought together as a kehillah all the eida of the bnei Yisrael and said to them, these are the things which the Eternal has commanded to do them)

He then instructs them about two things – firstly about Shabbat, a day of rest to follow six days of work, a day when no fire shall be seen in their homes. And secondly about the mishkan, telling them that col nediv libo – everyone whose heart was willing, (ie everyone who wanted to do so) should bring offerings to God, and then he lists an extraordinary number of objects and materials – gold, silver, acacia wood, rams skins, onyx stones…..

The people go and then come back laden with offerings. There is a strange phrase here – ve’ya’vo’u ha’anashim al ha’nashim – literally the men came upon the women. – and midrash tells us that this phrase tells us that the women came to make their donations first, and the men followed them, a lovely inversion of the story that the women had not wished to give their gold and jewellery for the building of the golden calf, demonstrating that they understood the importance of the mishkan and the abhorrence of the golden calf as a worship focus.

Whether this gloss on the verse is a good one is a moot point. I personally do not like it but I find hard to make any other sense of it. But what it does do is draw attention to the individuality of the givers – both men and women, each bringing what they have, what they can do, what they can make. They each use their skills and their materials to the best use of the mishkan. The focal point for the community is being made of the diverse skill sets and abilities of the entire community, freely giving above and beyond what was needed. The creation of the mishkan is a collective act, a symbol of the diverse community, a representation of its shared beliefs. Building it is an event that creates more than a powerful and beautiful edifice – it is an act that organises a people into a community.

How does one build a community? One recognises that a community is different things at different times, and it is different things to different people, and yet there is a golden thread that holds it together through time and space. Moses uses two different techniques to cause the community to come together – he creates sacred time and sacred space – or rather he brings the community to come together to create sacred time and sacred space. From being an eidah – a body of people with shared experience and destiny who may have nothing else in common, Moses used time and space to make a kehillah – an eidah that encompasses individuality and diversity and shapes it into shared and sustaining community.

Dedicating time and space to something one values is always the only way to develop it, to learn about it, to grow it. Making sacred space and making sacred time are the lynchpins of making sacred community. But doing in such a way that everyone who wants to can be involved, can give their skills, their time, their interests, their knowledge, their labour – this is the lesson we learn from the ultimate community building project of the book of Exodus, the building of the mishkan, the place where God did not dwell per se, but which reminded the people that God was among them.

Parashat Terumah: Building the space for a non incarnate God to not dwell – the elevation of giving

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.

cherubimIn 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.

Pekudei: Creating sacred space and creating community requires holding each other accountable



The description of the building of the Tabernacle continues and with great detail we learn about the physical mishkan, about the materials that went into creating it, about the cost to the community who freely gave of their wealth and skill, about how the process of creating it became a community project and one which created community as much as the building itself.  Here in Pekudei we have the equivalent of a modern AGM – the accounts are presented in detail so that everyone can see what went on, and no one could hide behind status or mystique. The sidra actually begins “These are the records (Pekudei) of the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding”

            The building of the Tabernacle was a direct result of the building of the golden calf.  After Aaron had given in to the request to build a god figure that the people could see, once Moses had disappeared into the top of the mountain and didn’t seem to be coming back, God had reluctantly realised that the people needed more than blind trust, more than simple faith – they needed something to hold on to.  So, having attempted to build a god-figure that they could see, God moved them on to constructing a building for the God they could not see – and than of course gave the added twist that this building would not in fact be the dwelling place of God – if they built it said God, then God would dwell among THEM.

            The people were very busy building the mishkan. Though God had provided the blueprint, and had engaged the architect and builders so to speak in Bezalel and Ohaliav, the fact remained that there was a lot more to do, and we are told repeatedly in biblical narrative and in the midrash that ALL the people were involved – both in terms of giving to the mishkan and in terms of supervising or of being accountable to.

            The purpose of building the structure is a little ambiguous – clearly it was needed for the people to have some tangible and existing sign that God was among them, but the greater agenda seems to have been that not only did the people need a sense of the proximity of God, they needed too to feel the support of their companions.  The building of the mishkan was in reality the way to build the community – its values, its processes, its vision.  It also gave the people a much needed task – subsisting in the desert waiting to go into battle in some nebulous future cannot have been easy for them, and must have sapped morale and caused them to question the meaning of their existence.  It is as if God responded to the anxiety of the people when they thought that Moses had gone and they were leaderless by giving them a commission to undertake – in effect God decided to keep the people busy, as they would then not get into the sort of trouble they did around the Golden Calf. Being busy meant they would also stop complaining – a habit they seemed to have polished into an art form already.  So God gave them a task and they formed themselves into a committee and threw themselves into the job.  When the mishkan was completed, and they were busy giving their accounts in sidra Pekudei, one commentator tells us that God said “Woe is Me, for now they will turn their attention away from creativity and working together, and once more lean towards destruction and separation.!

            The writer of that insight certainly understood how the Jewish community can behave – pulling together in times of crisis or shared values, bickering and pulling apart at other times.

                       So, if the purpose of the building was really to create a way of behaving together, so as to build the people into a community, the end of the project must have been a critical time for the Israelites.  I think that that is hinted at in the way the narrative develops, for the other major theme of Pekudei is the robes of the priesthood, and the mechanisms for developing that whole priestly structure, and this of course will lead us into the themes that will be preoccupying us over the next weeks of Torah readings – Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is largely about the inner workings of the cohanim, the priestly leadership who will have responsibility for the worship of the people.

            But  before we move on to the priesthood, let’s stay for a while with the twin theme of building and of community, what is known in the trade as minyan and binyan. 

We have always been a travelling people.  We have built buildings and then left them behind. What is of prime importance to our people isn’t the place we live or worship in, but what we do in it, not the material structure but the structure of our community. That said, the space in which we come together as a community – our Beit Knesset, the house of meeting which also acts traditionally as Beit Midrash – house of study, and Beit Tefillah – house of prayer, is hugely important for us.  It is the space in which we become a kehilla, the area where we function as part of the Jewish community.  So while rabbinic priority is always on minyan – community, rather than binyan – building, and while we attach more importance to a group of people creating a cemetery and a school before they create a synagogue – and indeed why we teach that any clean and respectable room can function as a prayer hall – it doesn’t have be dedicated or specially consecrated to make it ‘holy’ – we do care very much for our religious buildings.  There is a reason for this, and it can be traced to the building of the mishkan – we learn that how we create and treat sacred space is reflected in how we create and treat each other as people with whom we have a profound bond of covenant.

While the mishkan was the dwelling place of God, it is no accident I think that modern Hebrew has taken the root word shachen and turned it into the word for the local community. In English we live in suburbs – places less than the more important city around which we are arranged, but in Hebrew we live in sh’chen’ut – in a neighbourhood, a place of community.

There is a connection between our sacred space and our community –  a connection so deep and intense that we can create one by creating the other.  Sometimes we see this in the bonds we have with old synagogue buildings – it seems to me that every week there is a letter in the Jewish press about an old – sometimes even abandoned – synagogue needing to be saved for the community.  Sometimes we see the connection in the processes – just as community was built as mishkan was built, so we generate our community and deepen it by involving ourselves in the continuing development of our shared building. 

            This is an ongoing movement for us.  Our building becomes emblematic of our inner belief system, it both shapes us and must be shaped by us.  Sometimes that is difficult and we can get bogged down in detail – the sort of detail that Pekudei is also full of – how much money, how many hooks or nails, who paid for what, where the money went, who said it should…. That detail is important because it shows that all decisions made for the community must be transparent and open to all, it shows that no-one is above accounting for their actions, it shows too that leadership – in this case of the craftsmen Bezalel and Ohaliav – must be given to people who are capable and who understand more than just the details – Bezalel is described as having chochma, bina and da’at – not as being a chabad hasid, but as having wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in other words the widest possible sensitivity to information and how it is used.  He must have been good at the details, but he was good too at the overall vision of what was to be created. And importantly, he helped the community come together in order to create both binyan and minyan.


Parashat Terumah: In the making of Sacred Space, we create Sacred community

When Jacob left his home and journeyed to Haran he spent the night on the road. There he had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth, and of God standing above him. When he woke, he said to himself:  Ma Norah HaMakom ha’zeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ Gen 28:17

Sacred space is something that we all resonate with. And in parashat Terumah we have the beginnings of the first deliberately created sacred space.

When Jacob recognised the awesomeness of the place where he had so blithely slept, he simply set up a pillar and offered a sacrifice of oil to the God he had just encountered. He moved on to Haran the next day, keeping with him the memory and the promise God had given him. He had no need to do more than mark the space for future use, but we need more – either because we have never had an encounter with the divine, or because we know that memory fades and we need a more concrete reminder of what God can be for us – we need to inhabit sacred space.

In parashat Terumah God tells Moses to build a sacred space – a mikdash, a place that is in some way kadosh – separate, distinct and special, that embodies an idea and directs us towards it.

From earliest times the commentators have pointed out that what the mikdash does NOT do is to embody God, or in any way be a place where God actually lives. The phrase that God uses “Assu li mikdash v’shachanti BETOCHAM” – let them make for me a mikdash, a sacred and separate space, and I will dwell AMONG THEM is key.Image

The mikdash is the first building to be created for the awareness of God, it will be in the midst of the camp and will be a portable building that moves with the community, but it will be in the making of it – assu – that God dwells among us. Moses is told where and how to build the mikdash.  There are chapters and chapters of detail as to how to build it, with what materials, what colours shapes and sizes, how much everything weighs and costs, where it is to be placed. But all of that is secondary – God’s presence isn’t in the building, but in the people working to create it. The presence of God is something that occurs only when people are actually doing something to bring it about.



The synagogue I grew up in, the Bradford Synagogue was the third Reform synagogue in this country and is the second oldest building (Manchester having lost its original synagogue in Park Place). The quotation at the top of the extraordinarily decorated exterior comes from a young Jacob who had just encountered God in a very ordinary place, “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” was one that seemed to fit the grandeur of the Moorish Architecture of this beautiful building which was built in 1880 as the Bradford Synagogue for British and Foreign Jews. It was and is an amazing building, with vaulted ceilings and a free standing domed ark with grille-work to the front standing within a huge niche which is painted a midnight blue, and golden stars shine behind it, so that as a child it was easy to imagine being in a different and exotic world. Added to that the rich scarlet of the bimah coverings and the Persian carpets covering the raised area by the ark meant that truly it was (and is) a place filled with awe.. It was an awesome place and a place where heaven and earth met because of the community which met within it, which educated its children and celebrated the festivals and fasts of Jewish time. It was a community always small enough for every single person to matter, for everyone to have to be involved if it would survive.Image

That Synagogue is proof that it isn’t really the building that creates a sense of God, however gorgeous and ornate it might be – it is the people who come to work within it, the ordinary people who in daily life might work in retail or wholesale, be dentists or doctors, teachers or journalists.  Each of them, with willing heart, brought what they had to create a community. The whole key is in that verb – assu. We have to be doing, to making, to be forming and creating the whole time, not resting on our laurels in beautiful places, not turning places into museums of sacred space. Jacob had the right idea when having acknowledged the power of the encounter with the words “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.‘ –  he then he marked the place and moved on.

Sacred space is only sacred if we keep adding to its kedushah by being ourselves people who are kedoshim – people who follow the sacred principles and try to be more like God in our behaviour.










Parashat Terumah – creating our own sanctuary

 “Dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayik’hu li teruma. Me’eit kol ish asher yidvennu libo, tik’hu et terumati. …. va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham .And God spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of everyone whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering….And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

With this sidra we embark upon no fewer than thirteen weeks’ worth of Torah portions detailing how the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was meant to be built. One might contrast this to the narrative about the creation of the world which takes two chapters to tell two stories, or the narrative about Sinai and the revelation of Torah which takes three chapters in total.   So why is Torah focussing so narrowly and for so long? The answer can I think be found in the key word – Terumah is usually translated as an offering that is lifted up, but it is made clear in this passage that this is an offering freely given by whoever is moved to give.

There is none of the hard sell we are used to in charitable appeals, none of the slightly guilt tinged writing of cheques or pledge cards.  This is an offering that is motivated only by the desire to give. The root of the word terumah is something that is uplifted, elevated to a higher status. What we see here is the moment when human beings choose to do something extraordinary of their own free will; and then they are uplifted in some profound way. This elevation happens not because they are giving, but rather they are giving because they are in some way transcending their base selves.

What is it that causes this shift in the soul, this opening out of the awareness of the person? The narrative comes immediately after the debacle of the golden calf, when again the people gave, but that time they gave their gold and jewels in order to make for themselves an idol to worship.

 it must surely be some deep recognition that however much we make for ourselves external props and supports in order to buttress our fragile existence, true strength comes from within us. God’s words in verse 8 “va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham” is a clue – “let them make for me a sacred space and I will dwell within them”.

Once the people truly understand that the space they make within themselves by stopping all their frantic activity and verbal whirlwind and just letting themselves breathe and be – once they see that that this internal mindful space is effectively a mikdash, a sanctuary that is within themselves, then it quickly becomes apparent that the resources they need to support themselves are all there, all available and accessible. Call it God, call it by any other name, once we stop and let ourselves simply be, once we make the time and space to simply notice what our heart and mind truly wants, when we stop trying to fill the space around us and within us with busy-ness and activity then we ourselves are raised above the mundane. We become Terumah – uplifted; and we offer Terumah – the gift of who we are is a gift both to God and to ourselves.

Where does God dwell? This portion reminds us of the response of the Kotsker Rebbe Menachem Mendel. “God dwells wherever we let God in”.

As we begin the long and extraordinarily detailed description of the building of the sanctuary in the desert, we may reflect on why Torah spends so many weeks on the particular descriptions and the minutiae.   It takes a long time to create such a sacred space, yet consider the mikdash which we ourselves can create – without the gold or the silver, the purple or scarlet. The mikdash which we create within ourselves comes from our taking time out of our constant activity. And when we create that space within ourselves, we may find it filled with the Terumah – the willing heart, the presence of God, the strength and support that dwells within ourselves, if only we would reach for it.