Terumah: Holy sand

“Va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”  Make Me a sanctuary so I may dwell in their midst.  (Ex 25:8)

So begins a DIY/Home Depot section of the Torah.  Many, many instructions follow in Terumah, this week’s parasha. Very detailed, very specific, very long.

Why?  I mean, not just why is the Torah so detailed, but why does God need a place to stay?  Can’t God pretty much stay anywhere?  Some commentators say if Israel is to be a “holy nation”, like it says earlier in Exodus, then they should have a holy place for God’s presence.  The word “mikdash” is related to the word “kadosh”, often translated as “holy”, but can also mean “separate”.  We have kadosh-people, with their kadosh-place, where kadosh-things happen.  Other commentators say that the Mishkan was a mini-recreation of the original Creation, back in Genesis.  I want to focus on the word “b’tocham”, within them.  In their hearts, their souls, in themselves.  Plural, yet singular.  Talking to each person in the community, Torah teaches that God is both in the community, and in ourselves.

The Mikdash, the Holy Place was portable.  The set up instructions were designed so it could be built, taken down, rebuilt, and taken down again, as the Israelites travelled around.  If it weren’t portable, we would all have been visiting some spot in the Sinai wilderness all these years.   The original Chasidic movement, in the 19th century, gained popularity precisely because it endorsed the heart-felt over the ritrualistic.  Surely the impromptu, personal prayers of a simple man in the field were as important those said according to a book, in a place, among the educated elite.  Each individual carried with them a mini-Mishkan, a place where God could dwell.  To make that place welcoming for God, though, it required a welcoming space.  One that wasn’t sullied by anger or intolerance. A place that was made holy because of what happened there, and then it was taken down, packed away until the people reached a new place, and made that place holy for God.

When I go to the Naval Base to teach the recruits about Judaism, we start each Sunday morning session with Havdalah, the set of prayers that separates Shabbat from the new week.  We do Havdalah partly to experience/teach the ritual, and partly because it’s a sweet beginning to the learning.  The Havdalah prayer says, “hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol”, to separate the holy from the ……well, often it’s translated as “profane”, but that’s not right.  The opposite of kodesh is chol.  Chol also means “sand”, like the sand in the wilderness.  The Mikdash was built on one plot of sand, it was holy sand.  The sand right next to the Mikdash wasn’t profane, it was just sand.  Regular old Wednesday sand.  Not holy Shabbat sand, but not bad, evil sand.  The opposite of the holy is the normal, the mundane, the regular old sand.  What made the sand holy is what happened there.

The sanctuary we build so that God can dwell within us is like that, both in our communities and in ourselves.  The body we carry around isn’t bad, isn’t profane.  It’s our task, however, to make a holy, separate space for God as we travel around in this world.


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