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Balance between material and spiritual

Thoughts on parashat Terumah

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion of this week is entirely devoted to the structure of Mishkan. Mishkan comes from the Hebrew root meaning shachan which means “to dwell”; the tabernacle was considered to be the earthly dwelling place or residence of God.

God instructs Moses with words: Tell the Israelite people to get me their contribution, from everyone whose heart moves him . Then we have an entire list of materials the tabernacle should be built with. It’s quite an impressive list that contains gold, silver, bronze, acacia wood, dolphin leather, crimson yarns, linen etc. The whole, including the artistic workmanship, looks quite expensive, especially for the nomadic tribe living in the desert.

We don’t know for sure if these descriptions accurately reflect the reality of this particular moment in Jewish history or are a later idealization of Israel’s early history. But it seems probable that Mishkan had to be expensive for people to value its presence, care for it and to feel especially inside it.

There is a psychological rule that says that if we invest in something, we value it more. Each of us can also admit that we do not mind spending a lot of money on the things we really love. Therefore, the wealth of the tabernacle, and its splendor were to work psychologically and certainly – they worked. However, there is another psychological and sociological law – people tend to take something for granted, especially new generations brought up in an environment in which something has always existed. And what is obvious – all things, if not taken enough care of, self-destruct with time and thus become less attractive.

But these were not the reasons why the Israelites, after they conquered the Promised Land, began to constantly depart from the religion and traditions of their ancestors. They betrayed a tendency for idol worship, starting with the Golden Calf episode and presumably for plenty of them the Canaanite cults were quite attractive. People in general, until this day, have a tendency to idol worship and it seems to be a universal, cross-cultural feature of humankind, with which some of the religious cultures went to war at some point of history. The question of idol worshiping is basically a question of recognizing and worshiping true values. Can we, in the contemporary world, imagine people bowing to sculptures? It is difficult for us to imagine this happening in a literal sense, to bow to just an object, instead of the idea it represents. But we certainly have seen people praising and worshiping the results of human work. There is definitely nothing wrong in appreciating and valuing human inventions and works of human hands and technology. But if it gets a religious significance, when instead of worshiping something from a spiritual realm we worship something from material realm, that might be a sign of a problem.
The millennials often think they are more wise because of the technological advantage they have over older generations. In fact, we can agree all the generations since the beginning of the technological industrial era thought about themselves this way. But, at the same time they faced new challenges the older generations didn’t deal with. They had to learn new things and develop new wisdom.

Since technological development changes the dynamic between the spiritual and material realms of our existence we need to continually find balance between them in our thinking and actions. When we find this balance at the right place both realms of human existence become indistinguishable. A material thing that has internal value contains at the same time some meaning, but keep in mind, it is a subject to time and vanishing unless it is not sustained and renewed by human action.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski