On the Weekly Torah Portion of Terumah

Mishkan modelThis week’s Torah portion, terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), deals with the construction of the tabernacle, the mishkan (משכן), in the desert. The instructions for the construction of the tabernacle are so specific and so minute, that models of the tabernacle can be built with great accuracy (the picture on the left is from such a model built in the south of Israel).

A few verses into the portion, the Torah specifies the effect of building the mishkan:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם:
And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The verse seems to suggest, that the tabernacle, the mishkan, will enable God to dwell (lishkon) among the people of Israel. But that is absurd: God confined to a tent? And does that mean that before the construction, God is not able to dwell among them?

As King Solomon said in his prayer after completing the construction of the first temple:

הִנֵּה הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לֹא יְכַלְכְּלוּךָ אַף כִּי הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי:
Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

And as the prophet Isaiah declared:

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי אֵי זֶה בַיִת אֲשֶׁר תִּבְנוּ לִי וְאֵי זֶה מָקוֹם מְנוּחָתִי:
Thus says YHVH: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? (Isaiah 66:1)

But the verse may be saying something else. Firstly, the Hebrew word for “among them” is betocham,( בְּתוֹכָם), which means “within them.*” And it does not say betocho (בתוכו), which would mean “within it”, referring to the mishkan; it says within them, referring to the people of Israel.

The mishkan spoken of here is primarily a structure within the psyche. Each one of the people of Israel was enjoined on building a space within themselves, open themselves up in such a way so as to allow the divinity within them to shine through, to occupy the psyche. And then, God will dwell within them, within each and every one of them.

Some midrash commentaries support this understanding. We are told by the midrash hagadol that the structure of the mishkan parallels the structure of the cosmos as well as the structure of the human. It is not talking about the physical structure of the human, but the interior one: the one that is made of 248 limbs and 365 tissues, which parallel the 248 positive mitsvoth (commandments), the “do’s”, and the 365 negative mitzvoth, the “don’ts”.

Thus, the mishkan is truly an interior structure that comes into being when one lives according to YHVH’s will. And then YHVH is found to be dwelling in that structure. Even if an exterior, physical mishkan exists, it was only a sensory representation of the internal structure.

This is very reminiscent of the ideas of sacred architecture of both the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions: both model their temple according to their understanding of the human psyche, with the idea that the structure of the temple mirrors both the structure of the psyche and the structure of the universe.

According to these traditions, the actual physical experience of walking into the temple, from its outer boundaries into its sanctum, is said to be a mirror of the process of meditation, through which one realizes the divine Self within. Said differently, the structure of the temple points one to the fact that through meditation one creates this structure within one’s consciousness.

This Torah portion further describes the function of the mishkan:

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two Cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:22)

These words are addressed to Moses, but Moses is a metaphor for each and every one of us. For each of us to “hear the voice of God” within us, we need to construct this structure within ourselves, to created that sacred space within us through meditation so that we can be in tune with our deepest interiority—which is not different from the interiority of the universe.

* * *

This Torah portion is the first of five that deal entirely with the details of the construction of the mishkan. In fact, from now until the end of the book of Exodus, the Torah deals with nothing else.

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his book “Seven Years of Talks on the Weekly Torah Portions,” points out that the number of verses that the Torah devotes to the construction of the mishkan is 450; in contrast, the number of verses that the Torah devotes to the “construction” of the world in the book of Genesis is 31.

And that reveals the status and purpose of the Torah. It is not a book about cosmology, neither is it a book about history. It is a book that aims primarily at providing a map through which human awareness can align itself with the divinity within. And it is in this light that everything in this text should be interpreted and understood.

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*See a similar comment in the commentary on vayigash

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)