We have just had The Revelation at Mount Sinai – the peak experience at which every Israelite has accepted the Covenant with God, not just for them but for every generation after. Moses has just returned up the mountain to inscribe the commandments on stone and God appears in thunder and lighting on the mountaintop. It has been a spectacular encounter.
How do you come down to earth after that? How do you maintain a sense of the spiritual, the divine, after such an encounter? After any revelatory moment, how do you consolidate and keep the spiritual momentum going day after day, year after year? God says to Moses: “Let them make me a Sanctuary, a Mikdash, a holy place that I may dwell among them.” The people are offered an opportunity to make a place for God to dwell in their lives, to stay connected all the time.
And how do we make space for God in our lives? What’s the mechanism by which we keep God in our midst? We take our gifts, the offerings of our heart, and give them willingly, lovingly to the community.
“God spoke to Moses saying: Tell the Israelites to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him.”
“Whose heart so moves him”. If our giving comes from the heart, if we can open up wide enough to let someone else in, then God is with us. We have to want to give. Only the willing heart can participate in this endeavour. Only the willing heart carries the motivation needed for this kind of spiritual practice.
And willingness is often in short supply. The Torah talks about gifts of gold, silver and copper, animal skins and acacia wood, probably the most valuable things the writers could think of at the time. But these days, for those of us who have our basic needs met, the most valuable commodity is usually time. When it feels like life is a juggle, when every hour is accounted for and we are stretched between work, family and other obligations, how do we respond when we get a call from a friend in crisis asking for more of our time? Maybe needing it, not next week or at a convenient moment, but now. This week. Today. Can we find it in our hearts to give more of ourselves? The best of ourselves? It is a real challenge.
But I think the parashah Terumah is suggesting that if we want to find God, maybe the best way is to open our hearts to other people. There is a Kabbalistic idea that when the world was created there was a catastrophe and vessels of primordial light shattered. The divine sparks went everywhere and our essential task, as humanity, is to gather up the fragments to repair the world, to achieve tikkun olam. And how do we do this? Through acts of love and justice – the same things we can offer to build a holy place within ourselves and in the world today. It’s through repair of the world, and the work that involves, that we provide a space for the Shekhinah, the part of God that dwells within.
There is something healing about the act of giving. Rashi thought that the story of the Golden Calf, which we will read in a couple of weeks, happened directly after the Revelation at Sinai – that it had already happened at this point. If that is so, then giving from our hearts to build a holy place becomes an act of redemption and healing after having got things terribly wrong. It’s also a reflection of the fact that we don’t always get it right in the first place – sometimes our best intentions go wrong, or we simply fail to step up to the mark when we know we should. Sometimes we get consumed by the minutiae of daily life and forget about the bigger picture. But there is always the possibility of return. There is always the chance of redemption and of taking the very parts of ourselves that got it wrong, and through giving of ourselves, making it right. Not just on Yom Kippur but at any time of the year.
And it’s worth remembering that what the Israelites are actually building is just a container. At the centre would have been an empty space. At the heart of the fire, is silence. At the heart of our Jewish practice, is a point at which we are silent and listen for wherever God might come in.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that if you articulate the tetragrammaton, Y-H-V-H, what you actually get is the sound of an outgoing breath. Perhaps the body can be our own portable sanctuary, a vessel for the Breath of Life that sustains us. Slowing down and becoming aware of the miracle, the wholeness of our breath can be another way to access the God that dwells within.
Creating a holy place through the gifts of our heart can be a kind of healing and redemption. An opportunity to create a container for the quiet space that we need to bring God into ourselves. And through the healing that is involved in that we can help to repair the whole world and create something really beautiful with holiness and wholeness at its heart. Ken yehi ratzon.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.