The place we build for God (Radical Torah repost)
February 27, 2009
Here's a repost of the d'var Torah I wrote for the now-defunct Radical Torah in 2007. Enjoy!
We're entering a section of Torah which I used to find repetitive and kind of dull, and which I now look forward to ardently: the details of the construction of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in which the tablets of the covenant where carried, which the Israelites built (according to detailed instructions) as a home for the presence of God.
Parashat Terumah begins with God's instruction to Moses to tell the Israelites to bring gifts to God, as their hearts move them, and to put those gifts to work in the construction of the mishkan. These are freewill offerings: not tithes, each according to how much a given household can afford, but extravagant gifts of the heart. Give, God seems to be saying, what you most long to see placed in My service. Give your creativity and craftsmanship and compassion. Make a worthy home for My presence in the world.
This portion is woven through with an array of beautiful images: polished acacia wood (in my imagination it resembles mesquite or pecan), precious metals, fine fabrics, supple leather. Spices and precious stones. And, of course, gold: enough gold to make a cover for the ark of the tabernacle, hammered fine, with a gold molding, and gold rings to hold the carrying-poles, and gold cherubim facing one another -- and also facing the cover itself, looking inward at what this precious gold-covered box contains.
Those cherubim model relationship for us: relationship with each other, and relationship with the precious text on the tablets. God will speak to Moses from above the cover, between the two cherubs. God's voice will ring forth from the spaces where we face both each other, and our texts, with integrity. Even now, in a present-day this text could hardly have imagined, this vision rings true. We find God's presence in loving and respectful engagement with the words that shape our lives -- and with the other people, faces of God, with whom we share our world.
Much is made of the carrying-poles, which are to remain in the rings of the ark. As Marc-Alain Ouaknin has written,
The Law carried in the Ark is ever-ready for movement. It is not attached to a point in space or time...in our opinion, it is not only an ever-readiness for traveling, but in fact, of continuous, perpetual, incessant movement. The Ark must travel because the Law, the Torah, is in becoming.
Keep the carrying-poles in the rings, in other words, because holiness is always a gerund, a process of becoming. In some sense, the Torah which can be fixed is not the eternal Torah. If we hold it still, try to pin it to a particular meaning or point in time, we lose something ineffable -- and critically important. Torah's portability isn't an accident; it's what we carry with us in our wanderings. For Ouaknin (and for me), that's an essential quality of revelation: if we allow ourselves to be transformed by it, that transformation goes with us, wherever we go.
Build a table, the text tells us -- again, acacia wood overlaid with gold -- and on it, place the bread of display, to be before God always. What can this mean today, when we've had neither mishkan nor bread of display in millennia? When we invest ourselves in the holy work of creating a place among us where God's presence can dwell -- whether through learning to daven deeply and with passion, or working to alleviate need, or teaching others to access what enlightens our lives -- we are building that table in our own hearts.
As we read parashat Terumah this year, may we find ourselves able to construct an appropriate altar on which to lay the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts -- and may our every action be a terumah, an offering in the service of the One.