After 18 weekly Torah portions and an incalculably long pre-history, our desert ancestors hear a first call to build a holy place for God. Chapter after chapter of Torah will describe the Mishkan in numbing detail... yet we no longer wander the desert with a relic from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Why is any of this relevant to us today? Because we're still a people on the go. Because we start by giving, we build for mobility, and the Sacred goes where we go.
Parashat Terumah 5784 (2024)
We received the Ten Commandments. Now it's time to build an Ark.
Our ancestors organized what would become Jewish spiritual life around the famed Ark of the Covenant. The Ark took its honored place at the front of our ancestors' desert wandering, in the center of the Temple of Jerusalem, and in the center of Jewish consciousness. To this day, Ethiopian Jews claim to keep the Ark. Harrison Ford ("Indiana Jones") protected the Ark from Nazi raiders seeking to claim its power. Every synagogue Ark in the world stands in its place, a link in an unbroken chain of meaning and continuity.
The Ark's details will fill chapters of Torah, each filled with meaning for us moderns – and none more than this week's introduction.
וַיְדַבֵּר יהו׳׳ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי: וְזֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ מֵאִתָּם זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת: וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים: וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים: שֶׁמֶן לַמָּאֹר בְּשָׂמִים לְשֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וְלִקְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּים: אַבְנֵי־שֹׁהַם וְאַבְנֵי מִלֻּאִים לָאֵפֹד וְלַחֹשֶׁן: וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל־כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ: וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי קֹמָתוֹ: וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ תְּצַפֶּנּוּ וְעָשִׂיתָ עָלָיו זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב: וְיָצַקְתָּ לּוֹ אַרְבַּע טַבְּעֹת זָהָב וְנָתַתָּה עַל אַרְבַּע פַּעֲמֹתָיו וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת עַל־צַלְעוֹ הָאֶחָת וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת עַל־צַלְעוֹ הַשֵּׁנִית: וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב: וְהֵבֵאתָ אֶת־הַבַּדִּים בַּטַּבָּעֹת עַל צַלְעֹת הָאָרֹן לָשֵׂאת אֶת־הָאָרֹן בָּהֶם: בְּטַבְּעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ: וְנָתַתָּ
אֶל־הָאָרֹן אֵת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ
YHVH spoke to Moshe, saying: "Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me an uplift-gift. Take My offering from each who gives willingly from the heart. These are the offerings you will take from them: gold, silver and bronze. Blue, purple and scarlet yarn, fine linen and goats’ hair. Rams’ skins dyed red, goats’ skins and acacia wood. Oil for lighting, spices for anointing oil and sweet incense. Onyx stones, and stones to be set on the [High Priest's] clothing and on the breastplate. They will make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. According to all I show you, after the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its utensils, so will you make it.
"They will make an Ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits in length, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold inside and outside, and make on it a surrounding rim of gold. Cast four rings of gold for it and put them in its four corners – two rings on one side and two rings on the other side. Make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Put the poles into the rings by the sides of the Ark, so that the Ark may be carried with them. The poles will be in the rings of the Ark: they will not be taken from it.
"Put into the Ark the testimony that I will give you."
The gifts weren't just to uplift the Ark, like raising a barn. The gifts were terumah, literally "raisings up." The gifts – whether of money or materials or volunteerism (that'd come next) – lifted the giver. It was this raising up that God asked first and foremost – and still does – so that the Sacred could dwell tangibly among us.
That was the point of the Ark. Before stone tablets, before divine testimony, "They will make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." Notice what our rabbinic ancestors noticed: God wouldn't dwell in the Sanctuary, but among "them" – the people. As Shir Ami knows well, it's not about a building but an ethic of giving for collective sacred purpose.
It is here that Torah introduces Shekhinah – the Indwelling Presence, associated with the divine feminine. In "I will dwell among them," the Hebrew for "I will dwell" is v'shokhanti / ושכנתי. The noun of what dwells is Shekhinah / שכינה. In Islamic life, Shekhinah is called the Sakina (سكينة), likewise a peaceful presence. By medieval days, Shekhinah took the form of a Shabbat bride, hence Lekha Dodi.
Shekhinah is not far away, distant and inscrutable as a Creator God can seem, but rather dwells near, amidst and within. In bygone days of "local" and "long distance" telephone billing, one of my teachers described Shekhinah as "the local call." Shekhinah dwells where we dwell, and goes where we go – ever present, right here.
In that spirit, tradition holds that wherever we or our ancestors have gone, Shekhinah – the projection of the Sacred Infinite we feebly call God – has gone among us. Shekhinah dwells – or maybe our awareness or experience longs to be activated – when we engage with Torah (Pirkei Avot 3:6), when we pray (B.T. Sanhedrin 39a), when we suffer illness (B.T. Shabbat 12b), when we are lost or exiled (B.T. Megillah 29a), even when we have sex (B.T. Sotah 17a).
The Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto taught that Shekhinah suffers when we do. For all of us who ever felt abandoned by God (which is most of us), he taught that Shekhinah suffers for our suffering so much that the world can't possibly contain her grief. (Ask me about this if you're interested.) In suffering and joy, no matter what, Shekhinah goes where we go.
"Shekhinah goes where we go" – this is a big deal. It's one reason that Torah designed the Ark with soldered gold rings in which carrying poles were placed, never to be removed. The Ark, the physical symbol of the Indwelling Presence, would be ever ready to move, on a moment's notice. Shekhinah would go where we go.
From this, our ancestors also discerned – though some forgot – that Judaism itself is to be ever on the move, ever ready to move, never to be rigidly fixed in place, never to be entrapped by fixity or familiarity. (As another of my teachers once quipped, a movement is supposed to move.) It is exactly in our people's ever readiness to move, grow and evolve that we and Shekhinah take our timeless journey together.
It starts with gifts from everyone with willing hearts.