Parashat Terumah: Loneliness, Holiness & Fuss

For Congregation Ner Shalom, on the occasion of hosting the Kadima Women's Torah, February 25, 2012

We are now moving into the Torah service - rightfully our centerpiece on a day where we have such an illustrious Torah scroll as our guest. And I was asked to say a few words about the parashah to prep us for this journey. An easy job, you'd think, considering that the portion is Terumah, in which God instructs all whose hearts are generous to build a holy place, a mikdash, using the finest of precious metals and wood and skins and blue, purple and crimson dyes. A very rich portion. There is so much that one could say - on this day in particular - about coming together as a community for the purpose of creating holiness. So much one might say about how participation in the building of this mikdash was a function of generosity, not gender.

But, as always, I got tripped up. You see, as usual, I made the mistake of actually reading the portion. And I stalled briefly on God's famous words that you will hear Reb Shifrah chant shortly, which go:

V'asu li mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham.

They will make a mikdash, a holy place, for me and I will dwell among them.

This verse has always excited and puzzled me. Why did the people need God dwelling among them? Hadn't God already been plenty present, in the most shamelessly showy of ways - flinging plagues and parting the Sea and leading the Israelites as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night? Rashi, perhaps inadvertently, offers an answer. He glossed the Hebrew word li - "for me" - as meaning lishmi - "for my sake." In other words, we, those who are generous of heart, are instructed to build a holy place for God to dwell among us not for our sake but for God's.

And that made me sad. You see, in the beginning - no, before the beginning, our mystical tradition has it that there was only God. God was all, all was God. But when God considered creating the Universe it all changed. Once God conceived of an Other - something not God, or not seeming to be God - then Other existed. In that moment, in that thought, God contracted and separateness was born. And with it loneliness.

For what else could this really be but loneliness? God's immeasurable loneliness. The painful pricetag of Creation.

And in this parashah we see God maneuvering to be closer, to bridge the distance, to be more intimate. To dwell b'tocham - not just among us but in us.

"Invite me in," God seems to say. "Make a fuss over me. Do it up nice. Invite me to dinner. Make your best dish. Do it fancy. Use the good silverware. And the gold and the silver and the crimson cloth and the acacia wood. And in return v'shachanti b'tocham - I'll live among and in you.

        I want 2 be your Shechinah baby

        Maybe U could be mine

        U just leave it all up to me

        It's mishkan time."

It's a little romantic and a little desperate and a lot familiar. Because we all endure loneliness in this vast world. We desire love. We want to be wanted. We want someone to make a fuss and use the good silverware and make their best dish.

"Open up," God is saying to those whose hearts are, or might be, willing. "Invite me to move in, invite me real nice, and you know I'll say yes."

That offer still stands. When we create a holy place as a community, like we're doing today, we're saying, "Yes, come in." When we give care to making this whole world a holy place, we're saying, "Yes, come in." And when we pay attention to the beauty of our willing hearts, the multi-colored tent, the holy temple that sits inside of us, the gold and silver and blue and crimson finery that adorn our souls if we'd only take the moment to look, we're saying, "Yes, come in."

And that, my friends, is how you shack up with the Shechinah. First you move into a one-room tent in the wilderness, then upgrade to a Temple in a Holy City and, before you know it, you've moved out to the celestial suburbs and and are receiving your mail at God's house. Ashrei yoshvei veytecha, says the Psalm, happy are all those who live in your house. Here [the sanctuary]. Here [the wide world]. And here [the heart].

So let's go ahead and build it. Make some space in our lives for the Shechinah. And make that space nice. Haul our best out of mothballs. Offer our gifts. And maybe God's presence will assuage some of our age-old loneliness, and we, in turn, just might assuage some of God's.

(Mishkan/Mikdash created at Ner Shalom to receive the Women's Torahby Yael Raff Peskin, Atzilah Solot, Shoshana Fershtman and Janet Rae Jorgensen.)