Forty six years ago this Shabbat, as a senior student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was required to present my "senior sermon" to the faculty and students of this august institution. Needless to say, I was terrified. Sitting in the audience were some of the world -renowned scholars of Judaica at that time-prominently among them were Prof. Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor, Dr.Saul Lieberman, perhaps the most outstanding Talmudic scholar of his time, and the very well-known, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Not surprisingly, these many years later, I continue to ask the very same question-where can one discover a personal contact with the divine? I have changed considerably since that challenging morning so many years ago; yet, God's presence persists in eluding me, and I doggedly struggle to catch a glimpse, to sense a mere flutter of the godly in the course of my life's swiftly passing moments.
This weeks parsha, Terumah, address this question in a unique way. It contains instruction for the construction of a place in which God's presence can be encountered. "Build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them!"
Let me present some of my thoughts in response to this instruction and invitation by the Compassionate One .The story is told of a child in religious school who asked his teacher a question about God that the teacher was unable to answer. He was brought before the principal who patiently inquired of the child what his question was; he answered: “ I asked my teacher –where is God? And he told us that God is everywhere. But I don’t want a God who is everywhere; I want a God who is somewhere!”
In the opinion of many commentators, primarily Nachmanides, the construction of a dwelling place for God is the expression of Israel’s desire to preserve the experience of closeness to and intimacy with God that they experienced at Sinai. The architectural structure of the Sanctuary with its three divisions of space, the outside Court, the Inner Court and the Holy of Holies is reminiscent of Mount Sinai’s three areas of holiness, the foot of the mount, the middle where Aaron and the elders remained and the very top, which encompassed God’s immediate Presence and was accessible only to Moses. Sinai was a one-time moment, one of a peak experience, and shortly thereafter was no more. Israel had a long distance to travel before arriving at the Promised Land. How were they to perpetuate the sense of God’ s Presence as an ongoing reality? The Sanctuary emerges as this spatial attempt to capture the fleetingness of temporal revelation. As God’s voice penetrated the foreboding silence of Sinai, so too was Israel able to concretely connect to a caring God by transporting a Sanctuary along their journey through the endless barrenness of an inhospitable and indifferent wilderness.
The building of the sanctuary was an expression of Israel’s desire for a God who is somewhere, a divine reality that can be recognized and incorporated into their lives anywhere and everywhere, whether in the wilderness, the Holy Land or dispersed to all four corners of the earth. It is this search for God, for the sacred, that is the overriding challenge of the Jewish people.
Moreover, the opening verses of the parasha suggest the initial possibility of God awareness in their own midst.
The act of giving-emulating God as the Ultimate Giver of All-in a way that reflects a generous and open heart-yidvenu libo- is the starting point of the quest for God. Not philosophical speculation or even a leap of faith; rather the leap of love and giving, the taking unto oneself in order to give for a purpose that transcends one’s egoic constraints and limitations. Some read the opening words -vayikchu li-take for Me-as “Take Me”- in other words, when one gives -whether gold, silver or bronze-as
long as it is raised up as an offering of an open and giving heart, steps are taken on the journey toward a God who is somewhere, with the eventuality that indeed God will dwell in their midst.
God can be perceived in many places; in Nature, in the Mitzvah,in the myriad moments of wonder that touch our lives. To gain entry to this dimension of the godly, perhaps the first step is to construct in our hearts a sanctuary, a space, even a tiny opening, which is loving and compassionate. Through this opening, we will, perhaps find a fleeting moment of divinity and wonder.