Parshat Terumah: Places for Prayer

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill

Parshat Terumah contains the commandment to build the mishkan: “They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” How does the mishkan – a physical structure – inspire closeness and connection to God? How is this achievable today?

The commentaries debate whether the mishkan was an ideal or a necessary accommodation. The second half of Shemot is dedicated mostly to the description of the mishkan, interrupted in the middle by the narrative of the sin of the golden calf. The midrash Sifre sees a direct connection and explains that the gold in the mishkan attones for the gold used to make the golden calf. Rashi similarly teaches that there is no chronological order in the Torah and the command to build the mishkan actually took place after the sin of the golden calf, as atonement and tikun. The Ramban however, sees deep relevance in the placement of the command to build mishkan after the revelation at Sinai: “The glory of God that dwelt on Mount Sinai, hiddenly dwells upon the mishkan.” The mishkan and later the mikdash was a center where people could go to feel God’s presence. Today, this applies to a Beit Knesset or Beit Midrash called by the Sages, a “mini-mikdash.”

Yet, there is another dimension to the purpose of the mishkan: so that God will “dwell among them” – the people. Cassuto writes that the ultimate purpose of the mishkan was for the people to feel that God was in their midst. The building itself was not the goal, but rather how it inspired the people within. This idea is also expressed in Talmud Berakhot when it teaches that a person should enter two doorways in a synagogue before praying. This provides an opportunity to be mindful about entering a place of prayer, a “mini-mikdash.” 

The movement through the doors, and the experience within, can hopefully inspire us to move closer and feel more connected to God and community. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Vayakhel: Meaningful Work

Work is a central theme in parshat Vayakhel’s description of the building/making of the mishkan and the objects within it. This work is referred to mainly as “melakha,” and sometimes as “avodah.” What do these different Hebrew words for work connote and how can this relate to our own work or daily tasks today?

The word melakha which features prominently in Vayakhel, is also a keyword in Bereshit, where God’s “work” – the creation of the world – is called melakha. Another parallel: Both the work of creation and the mishkan cease for Shabbat. Also, the archetype for “work” which is not permitted on Shabbat (the 39 melakhot) is derived in the midrash Mekhilta from the repetition of the command to keep Shabbat in parshat Vayakhel. These parallels suggest that melakha is a type of work which consists of creativity, ingenuity and beauty, such as in God’s creation of the world and in humankind’s ability to create in this world (ie. the mishkan). The word avodah however, has a different connotation. It is used in the decription of the work the Jews did as slaves in Egypt. Moreover, it is also used in rabbinic literature to refer to serving God through either sacrifices or prayer. 

The commentaries question why the work in the mishkan is referred to as both melakha and avodah? The Kil Yakar comments: The word avodah, which connotes serving one’s Master, is used to describe the humbling work of serving God. Melakha, however, is the work which connects heaven and earth, which empowers human creativity in the Divine image of the ultimate creation, the world. Human work contains both aspects.

Work can feel like an obligation or service. But it can also be an expression of creativity, innovation and passion. May we find ways to imbue daily tasks with meaning, while also bringing out our passions and creativity. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson