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 

Terumah: The heart of Jewish life

The mishkan (and later the mikdash) was the heart of Jewish life, where God’s presence resided. The Torah refers to the mishkan as “mishkan ha-edut.” To what does it give testimony?

The midrash Tanhuma suggests 2 possibilities. 1) The mishkan is testimony to the Jewish people’s emunah and acceptance of Torah. This makes sense as this week’s parsha, Terumah, contains the command to build the mishkan which follows Matan Torah. 2) The mishkan was physical testimony to the nations of the world that God forgave Israel after the sin of the golden calf. This reading assumes that the command to build the mishkan took place after the chet ha’egel. Here the mishkan bears witness that God rescinded the decree to destroy Israel after Moshe pleads for Israel. The mishkan signified to Israel and the world, or possibly both, that the brit between Israel and God continues and thrives.

What happens to this testimony after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash? The Talmudic sages provide two possibilities for where God’s presence may reside in Babylonian exile, where there was no mikdash but there were examples of a “mikdash me’at,” mini-mikdash. Rabbi Yitzchak taught that God resides in the Beit Knesset or Beit Midrash, where the community gathers to pray and learn Torah. Rabbi Elazar taught that the Shechinah resides in the home of his teacher, also filled with Torah. The synagogue, the beit midrash, the home, where Jewish people gather, study and perform mitzvot – these places became the heart of Jewish life in the post-Temple times.

Today too, especially in the face of increasing antisemitism, these centers are an extension of the command to build the mikdash and convey meaning for both Israel and the world. Continuing to study, pray and gather – wherever we can – is the strongest expression and testament of vibrant Jewish life and continual bond between God and Israel. Shabbat Shalom🌸- Karen Miller Jackson