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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Parshat Terumah/Rosh Hodesh Adar I: Building a Sanctuary in the Void

This week’s parashah/portion is Terumah (Shemot/Exodus 25:1-27:18).  The word terumah is usually translated as a gift or offering.  It is specifically a gift to be used in the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the people will take with them during their 40 years of wandering.

The parashah begins with God saying to Moses:  “Speak unto the Israelites, telling them to take for me terumah; from each person whose heart stirs them shall you take my terumah……they shall make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in their midst (Shemot 25:2,8).

For centuries, these verses have begged the question: why does God, need a dwelling place?  The common response is some variation on “It isn’t God that needs a dwelling place.  It was the Israelites that needed some kind of physical representation of God’s presence.”   As Midrash Mekhilta states “the Sanctuary is not to be according to My [God’s] dimensions, but according to those of the Israelites.”

This makes sense. Yet, it is also a radical (and somewhat anthropocentric) statement the ancient rabbis were making. For they were saying, that God is willing to allow the people to believe that the Divine Presence can dwell in a human-size structure in order to meet the people’s needs.  The Hafetz Hayyim wrote, “God doesn’t expect the impossible from humanity.  Our worship and service is measured by human standards, not by Divine ones.  We are expected to do that which is within human reason.”  But is God also expected to make seem as if God is doing what is within human reason?

In the creation story, we read that humans are created “in the image of God.”  Therefore, it would be simple to believe that we are to be held to the same standards (live on the same scale) as God.  And yet, the rabbis tell us time and time again that this is not the case.  In referring to the verse in Exodus 22:30, when God proclaims “you shall be a holy people to me,” the Kotzker Rebbe (an early Hassidic master) implores us that God is not asking us to be angelically holy “for God has enough angels, but you are meant to be holy as people.”

But what does it mean to be holy?  Our tradition has many answers to this question.  I would like to use a verse from this parashah as a springboard for exploring this question.  As I wrote above, God instructs Moses to “take a terumah/gift/offering from each person whose heart stirs them.”  However, the phrase כל איש (kol ish), “each person” can also be interpreted as meaning “all of a person.”  Using both translations, this phrase commands that only those who are truly moved shall bring gifts and that the gift must be from and of our entire being.  When our heart tells us we are ready, we must bring our entire selves to God.  When we do this, then we become a holy people joined together with God.

But if this is the case, wouldn’t that indeed make us angelic or Godlike?  On the contrary, the fact that the parashah speaks of building a house for God in human scale reminds us that this is indeed all about being humanly holy and not divinely holy.  We may be created in God’s image. We may strive to act in godly ways.  However, we can never truly be godlike.  That is reserved for God.

But what does it mean to strive for godliness, to bring our heartfelt gifts to God and to build a dwelling place among the people where we can experience God’s presence?  I wish I had definite answers to these questions.  But the questions simply beget more questions. 

In addition to being Shabbat Terumah this Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh Adar I, the first day of the new month of Adar I (or Adar Aleph in Hebrew).  This is a leap year and in Jewish tradition, we add an extra month during a leap year in order to prevent the holidays from continuing to get earlier each year to the point where the spring festival of Passover will take place in the winter or fall.

We add the extra month during what is traditionally the last month of the year, Adar.  According to the rules of the calendar, all holidays and other observances, such as birthdays and anniversaries of deaths that normally take place in Adar are to be celebrated during a leap year in Adar II (Adar Bet). Therefore, the second Adar is the real Adar!  The only dates that are celebrated in Adar I are the births and deaths of people who were actually born or died during Adar I when it was a leap year.

So, in a sense, Adar I does not even exist.  It is a pause. A void.  It is not real.  And yet, it is very real.  We watch it pass day by day.  Yet, the only things we remember during these days are the two certainties of human existence:  birth and death.  So, what is it that we should do during this month?  To me, it cries out for some kind of ritual practice.

In the blog “Peeling a Pomegranate” (, the author Ketzirah, likens Adar I to the mythic fifth element of “ether.” Ether is an element that is not an element.  Plato described it as “that which God used in the delineation of the universe.”  In Aristotle’s system, it had no qualities or properties at all.  One could say that ether infuses the world and yet it cannot be seen, felt, tasted, categorized nor classified.  Yet, it is all around us.

Ketzirah likens this to the Hebrew word חשמל chashmal.  Though in Modern Hebrew this means electricity, in the Tanakh/Bible, it is the mystical substance Ezekiel describes as illuminating the Chariot of God in the Divine visions.  It is untouchable, indescribable, and yet it powerful.  This is the world of Adar I.  On the one hand, this month is like a void into which we must step, and yet once within we are surrounded by the indescribable, yet potent, world of the ether.  We are truly in the realm of the ethereal.

But how does this connect with the building of the sanctuary for God? Much more easily than one might think.  For I view chashmal as the untouchable, unknowable, ethereal divine energy that flows through the universe.  This is what we are trying to capture and package in human terms through the building of the mishkan.  In the Torah, only the priests may enter the sanctuary and only the High Priest may enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant is to reside.  We know that later in the scriptures when a man touches the ark in order to prevent it from falling, some type of energy that shot forth from the ark kills him immediately.  The same is true of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu who are killed by a bolt of fire/energy that comes down from the heavens when they attempt to worship God in a way that had not been prescribed. 

In both cases, it is as if they came in contact or were penetrated by a concentrated form of energy, which cannot be classified as one of the four main elements of earth, air, water or fire.  In both cases, when someone came too close to God or attempted to approach God in a “strange” way, this energy, that I will call chashmal, penetrates and kills them.  After all, we are only human.  We are not divine.  And chashmal is indeed from the Divine and is in the realm of the divine.  We can only approach it, and God, when it is packaged in human form and kept hidden from us in its own sanctuary.

I would like to propose that entering Adar I we are entering our own kind of sanctuary.  This is a month devoid of any trappings of the other months.   When we step into the void of Adar I we are surrounded by chashmal, that divine flow of energy.  However, just as we built the mishkan in human dimensions, this energy is present only in a filtered way so that it is accessible to we human beings.  And so, we can be surrounded by it.

In Adar I, we are provided with an opportunity to simply to experience the divine energy, to bask in its glory.  But we do so in as simple and silent a way as possible.  We do this without any fanfare or communal celebration. Instead, during this month that is not a month, I would like to suggest that we take extra time to pray, meditate and explore what it means to be connected to that divine energy. 

Then, when the month is over and the calendar continues as usual, we can have a clearer sense of our connection to the universe and what tasks lay before us.  We will hopefully have a clearer sense of what it means to create a place for God to dwell within us and among us the rest of the time.  We will know what it means to create a sanctuary.   We will be prepared to celebrate the upcoming joyous, raucous festival of Purim followed by Passover, the feast of our redemption.  Having a clearer sense of what it means to approach the Divine from the heart and with our entire being, we will then be prepared to bring our multitude of gifts to God in celebration and joy, by bringing them to humanity and the world. 

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