Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Terumah – The Space Inside of Us

A rabbi once told me of teaching young children about the Jewish idea of God. He told them that God was everywhere. One boy reached out his hands, clapped them together and said, “Got Him!”

We are spatially oriented creatures. Although love, justice, mathematics, and other accompaniments of life exist apart from physicality, God remains difficult to separate in our thoughts from notions of place. The rabbis explain that God is indeed called makom (place) because God is the place of the world, although the world is not God’s place. In other words, God encompasses this world but is also greater than it. Yet in our thoughts, we locate God spatially, imagining God dwelling in the heavens or being more present in synagogues than in sewers.

Terumah, with its detailed creation of the mishkan, the tabernacle, reminds us that human beings need sacred space. “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).” God dwells not in the sanctuary but among the people. You will feel God’s presence if there is a space to do so.

We realize, at least intellectually, that God is not in fact ‘more present’ inside the sanctuary than out on the street. The building of the mishkan did not entice the divine presence to dwell where it would otherwise be absent. Rather, the human demonstration of devotion evokes God’s spirit. God’s presence awaits our willingness. God is, as the Kotzker Rebbe famously said, wherever we let God in.

With all its specifications, the mishkan is intended to produce an effect on human beings, not on God. There is a beautiful story told of the great Seer of Lublin when he was a boy. He used to visit the forest and when his father asked him why, the boy explained, “I go there to find God.” When his father smiled and said, “But my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” the future hassidic master answered, “God is, but I’m not.”

The building of the mishkan did not change God, but it changed Israel. It taught us to both seek out and create spaces where we can feel God’s presence. God may be the same everywhere, but we are not.