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

What does the Tabernacle symbolize?

What does the Tabernacle symbolize?  

Mati Kirschenbaum

Adonai, enthroned on cherubim, is king, peoples tremble, the earth quakes. (Ps 99:1.)

We recite these words every week during Kabbalat Shabbat. They refer to the vision of the Eternal sitting on the cherubim in the Tabernacle, whose construction is being described in this week’s Torah portion Terumah. In this Parashat we read about the instructions regarding how to construct the Tabernacle which Moses received from the Eternal. Moses conveys these instructions to the Israelites, ordering every person whose heart so moves them to give offerings which will be used to build the Tabernacle. Its completion is supposed to allow the Eternal to dwell AMONG the Israelites. This way of phrasing it suggests that, contrary to Middle-Eastern deities, whose temples were considered to be their homes, the Eternal was not going to live in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was meant to be only His symbolic dwelling. However, the instructions regarding the way in which this dwelling should be built are very detailed. We could ask why a structure holding a purely symbolical meaning is being described in such a detailed way.

Our scholars were interested in this question already in ancient times. Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the first century of the common era, claimed that the Tabernacle symbolizes our world. The two parts of the Tabernacle which the priests had access to –  the Courtyard and the Holy Place, were supposed to symbolize heaven and earth, whereas the Holy of Holies was supposed to symbolize the place of God’s presence which was  inaccessible to humans. The twelve loaves of bread were meant to symbolize the twelve months of the year. The four kinds of materials from which the curtains of the Tabernacle were made were supposed to symbolize the four elements.

On the other hand, Shemot Rabba, the collection of Midrashim on the Book of Exodus, views the Tabernacle as an earthly manifestation of the Eternal’s creative power. According to this  interpretation the curtains in the Tabernacle symbolize the sky, which according to Psalm 104:2 was spread by the Eternal. The division between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place was supposed to symbolize the division of the waters caused by the creation of the heavenly vault, as described in Genesis 1:6. The lights in the Tabernacle were supposed to remind that all Light comes from the Eternal.

The above mentioned interpretations of the Tabernacle’s construction provide different explanations as to why the instructions are so detailed. However, what they have in common is the belief that the Tabernacle represents the multidimensionality of the world created by the Eternal. This model shows us that in this world we do not have access to all the aspects of reality. However, we are able to learn a lot as we try to portray them using the means which are available to us. Moreover, the very process of building such a model brings us closer to the Eternal.

Nowadays building a Tabernacle for the Eternal does not entail erecting impressive constructions. Today we build such a Tabernacle by means of good deeds. Every act of helping your neighbor, every demonstration of our social engagement contributes to erecting a Tabernacle here and now, a Tabernacle in which the Eternal will dwell among us. May this moment arrive speedily in our days. Ken Yehi Ratzon Bimhera Beyameynu. Shabbat Shalom!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum