D’var Torah on Terumah

One of the gates to the old city of Jerusalem (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Israel201111-207. Used by permission)
One of the gates to the old city of Jerusalem (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Israel201111-207. Used by permission)

This week’s parsha contains one of my favorite lines in Torah, Exodus 25:8, usually translated as, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” This is the second place in Torah where G-d gives us very, very detailed instructions to build something. The first was the set of instructions to Noah and family to build the ark. The second is to the Jewish people to build the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle for worship in the desert.

The interesting and often overlooked parallel between the two is the common question of why is G-d giving us very detailed instructions to build something that is going to be temporary?  Noah will not need the ark after the flood. The wandering Jews will not need the Mishkan any more after they are settled in a new land and they can build a permanent Temple.

It is because the act of building, or creating, even something temporary, changes us, permanently. Have you ever purchased ready-to-assemble furniture, like from Ikea, and were totally puzzled by the assembly manual?  It happens to me all the time. I am far from handy. I know I am not alone here. I own one power tool. It is a power screwdriver. I have used it twice … to install fragile mezuzot, too fragile to be hammered.

The great Jewish psychologist Abraham Maslow is the person most often cited for creating the maxim, “If all you have is a hammer, you make all your problems look like nails.” Maybe Dr. Maslow was limited in how many tools he could use also.

The act of building the sanctuary changes us. Dan Ariely, Israeli-American professor of Experimental Psychology at Duke University, actually calls this “The Ikea Effect,” how building it yourself makes you feel it is worth much more than it is actually worth. So, why do we build sanctuaries that change us, knowing structures are variables that are temporary, not constants?  By making the ordinary extraordinary, by creating sacred moments and sacred spaces. Perhaps spaces in time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Jewish Sabbath as our “sanctuary in time.”

In the hospital, where I spend so much of my time, there is the concept of the “Sacred Pause in the ICU.” Researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston introduced this “Sacred Pause” concept in The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine in 2018. It is described as “a ritual and intervention to lower distress and burnout.” It is a staff debriefing, often facilitated by a chaplain, after the death of a patient, “to honor the lost life and recognize the efforts of the health care team.”

When G-d calls us this week to all work together to build the mishkan, logically there were three types of people who could respond. The first, the obvious, were those who could bring an abundance of materials, more than we needed, there was going to be left over parts, like what happens to us, after we reach the last page of the proverbial Ikea Assembly Manual. The second type of person who heard the call, logically, had to be those who did not respond. There is no mention of them. However, the third type of person who had to have heard the call, would be those who wanted to but could not help build the sanctuary, perhaps those who were ill of body or soul or mind.

What does G-d say to them?  The answer is hidden in the Hebrew used for the first time in the Torah, used in this portion, for the word “dwell” in “I will dwell among them, or in their midst.” The Hebrew root presented here is the sh-ch-n. The root transforms into the shechina, the feminine side of G-d, also referred to as G-d’s indwelling.”

Jewish mysticism taught that one of the roles of the shechina is, as Rabbi Dayle Friedman writes in Jewish Pastoral Care, “When a person is sick, the Shechina or G-d’s presence, or G-d’s dwelling capability, dwells at the head of the bed.” Once, when I was taking a hospital nursing education class with five nuns, the instructor posed the question on why should we not sit on the bed of a patient, even if there are no other chairs available and the patient invites us?  I intercepted the nuns with my hands raised quickly, to teach that we should not sit on the bed of the patient because that is where the shechina will dwell.” Where the dwelling capability, we pray, will come to dwell. It was a teaching moment for me, as the nuns were eager to learn this Jewish mystical concept.

That may be the ultimate example of HaShem’s Gemilut Chasadim, G-d’s own ultimate act of loving kindness, the concept that if you want to build a sacred dwelling place for Me and you cannot do it, then my dwelling presence, the shechina, will automatically come and dwell with you. Much later on in The Bible, Isaiah teaches, “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, My People, says G-d.” We learned that this week, in Terumah, with the gentle gift of the shechina.


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