“Find a place where you won’t get into any trouble!”
“A place where I won’t get into any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?”
Well, Dorothy and Toto tried to find that place, over the rainbow. It wasn’t exactly a trouble-free place, thanks to the Wicked Witch and the scary Wizard himself (until he’s exposed, literally). But the Israelites found a place like that, in this week’s parasha, Terumah. “V’asuli mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham…Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell with them.” (Ex 25:8)
There are so many details in this parasaha about building the Mishkan. Measurements. Materials. Method. But what sort of a place is this sanctuary? Why have it? Why does God need a place? Isn’t God everywhere? And why the details?
Naturally, the rabbis jump all over this, with beautiful and thoughtful commentary. Some of our favorite commentators – Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Sforno, – each take a different view (of course!) For Rashi (11th c France), the Mishkan is all about being a place for atonement. There is confusion as to whether this whole episode took place before or after the Golden Calf debacle; for Rashi, it happened after the Golden Calf, even though we haven’t gotten to it in the weekly schedule. Go figure – there’s no “time in the Torah”. For Ramban (13th c Spain), it’s simply that a holy people need a holy place; it has nothing to do with atonement. For Rashbam (12th c France, Rashi’s grandson), all the blueprints and details simply mean that it’s a place for the community to meet. And for Sforno, (16th c Italy) the language of this section mirrors the language of creation, so the Mishkan is a representation of the creation of the world.
Like so many other moments in Exodus, Terumah represents all of these things…or none of these things…or one of these things…or something totally new. (Don’t you love commentary? It helps if you’re able to hold more than one idea in your head!) This was a people newly liberated, out in the middle of the wilderness, fresh from a ground-shattering communal experience, the giving of Torah. They are on a journey, literally and figuratively. The Mishkan is a literal expression of a virtual journey, one from slavery to freedom. It doesn’t happen quickly, but rather, it’s a process. The detailed instructions of for building the Mishkan is a manifestation of the process it’s going to take to go from one to the other. Building the Mishkan as a place for God to dwell is a process for the people to embrace.
Is the Mishkan a place where the Israelites wouldn’t get into any trouble? Well, if this happened before the Golden Calf, then clearly no. But even if it did, the Calf happened outside the holy space. It’s still a place apart from trouble. We all need a place like that – not God, but us. Terumah is outlining a process for the people, for us, to move from whatever is enslaving us to whatever can liberate us, bringing us to a place over the rainbow.