Friday, March 3, 2017

Terumah: Home is Where the _____ Is

One of the things that always amuses me in Judaism is when we try to explain a word in Hebrew with an equally-if-not-more-obscure word in English. So what are tefillin? Oh, they're phylacteries. How do we refer
to the four-letter holiest Name of God in English? It's the Tetragrammaton. And how might you translate the Biblical word "Mishkan"? It's the Tabernacle. Wow, I'm so glad we brought these everyday English words in to help us explain the Hebrew... I mention this here, because I want to talk about a little about the Mishkan... you know, the Tabernacle. I probably don't need to explain this any further, since I've given you the (helpful) English translation, but let me say a few more words about it anyway, just in case...

A few years ago, a student of mine came up with a MUCH more helpful explanation for Mishkan, which is "synagogue on the go." In later generations, the Israelites would build a Temple in Jerusalem, but while they're still a nomadic, displaced population in the desert, they need a portable, collapsible structure to reflect their migratory existence;
VoilĂ , the Tabernacle. And what's really interesting about this week's Torah portion is that we are given super-precise instructions for how to build it. God even regulates design flourishes and materials used - everything has to follow a micro-managed blueprint. And yet, the later Temple did NOT look like this Tabernacle. Why not? If God was incredibly deliberate about EXACTLY how God wanted the prayer space to be designed, why didn't we follow those same instructions later, when we built a permanent structure? Furthermore, nearly EVERY synagogue, temple, and shul today looks different. Not only do they not reflect the model of the Tabernacle, they don't resemble one another AT ALL either! What gives??

I think there's an important clue in one of the most famous lines of our parashah. In Exodus, 25:8, God says, "Let them make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." We may not have followed the Tabernacle blueprint, but this verse is carved into synagogue and sanctuary walls around the world!
And I want to highlight two parts of this phrase: 1) God says "make for Me," "v'Asu Lee." In a sense, this is the structure GOD likes! God is saying, "If I were to build a prayer space, this is what it would look like." It is God's ideal. But is it ours? Obviously not, since every generation has built synagogues to mirror their own style, their ideals, and the models they were seeing among their neighbors. And 2) God also says, "I will dwell among them," or a literal translation may even yield, "within them." When we build our own sanctuaries, that reflect who we are and what we stand for, God infuses those spaces (and even the people themselves) with God's Spirit. God's dream home is different from yours or mine, but there's no "right way" or "wrong way" to construct them.

Which leads me to my final point. Lately I've been looking at this text differently, and seeing it as a way to express and envision the embodiment of "home." God is saying: "This is what 'home' looks like to Me... what does it look like to you?" So amidst all these excruciatingly precise blueprints, the real question we should be asking is, "what does home mean to me?" Who inhabits that space, who is excluded,
what does it do for me, and why do I need it? Perhaps most difficult to grapple with is the question of how to treat others in your home, if you even let them in to begin with. Again, we go back to God's model, where God wants this Tabernacle-home for God's Self... but then shares the space with others and infuses those who contributed to its construction with holiness and spirituality. How can we emulate this ourselves? How do we open our homes to others and dwell among them, even as we let them dwell among us and influence our lives? One of the hardest principles for humans to learn - throughout the ages - is that we receive more back when we give away. Generosity and compassion breeds the same emotions in others. That is what God is modeling, and, challenging as it may feel, that is what we need to model for one another as well.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Inyan on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Hallwyl Museum on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ram-Man on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dru Bloomfield on Wikimedia Commons

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