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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Parshat Terumah: Allowing God to Dwell Within

This week's Torah parasha/portion is Terumah (Shemot/Exodus 25:1 - 27:19).  In this parashah, God begins instructing Moshe on how the mikdash, or portable sanctuary, is to be constructed.  A key concept can be found in the beginning of the parashah when God says to Moshe, "And let them make Me a sanctuary/holy place that I may dwell among them" (25:8).  The Hebrew word for "I may dwell" is v'shakhanti.  The root of this word is shin-khaf-nun the same as for the word mishkan, another name used in the Torah for the wilderness Tabernacle or sanctuary. 

It appears from this verse that the mikdash/mishkan is to be built so that God can dwell in the presence of the people.  Yet isn't God to be found everywhere?  Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah commentary, points out that the verb sh-kh-n connotes a temporary, nomadic dwelling, not a permanent home.  As we read elsewhere in the Torah, God dwells periodically in the mikdash/mishkan.  When God is not dwelling there, it is a sign that it is time to pack up the structure and the entire camp and begin traveling again. Another key word in this verse is b'tocham.  Translated as "among them," it can also mean "within them."  Many commentators notice this and focus on what it means for God to dwell 'within' the people.   

As Aviva Zornberg points out in her commentary, Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture,  the word does not translate as "among the nation [as a whole]," but rather, "within [each of] them" [i.e., the people].  The mishkan/mikdash is meant to represent the fact that God will be able to dwell within and among each individual.  Siftei Chachamim, a commentary on Rashi (11th century France), states that the mikdash is meant to be a "house in which there is a 'midst' to dwell."  Alternatively, as Zornberg states it, "a hollow core where God may dwell."  

In other words, the mishkan is an empty space awaiting God's presence.  Zornberg discusses at length the tension and contradiction of the concept that God is everywhere and yet can dwell within one specific space.  The image of the empty place within and God outside waiting to be allowed in is echoed in much of the language of the Biblical book Shir ha'Shirim/Song of Songs, where the lover (God) is portrayed as waiting outside the door for the beloved (Israel) to let God in. 

Furthermore, Zornberg discusses the paradox that it is the very absence of God that fuels the longing for God.  This longing causes us to be truly awake and aware of God's presence.  Zornberg writes, "To be awake, pulses beating, is to be aware of distance, difference, to yearn to open [to God] at the right moment.  That is, God cannot be inside if He is not outside, if the heart cannot imagine its emptiness."  She compares this to the work of Gaston Bachelard who, in speaking about the paradoxical relationship of warmth to cold writes, "we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors" and how, "...everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate."

When I read this verse, I stopped in my tracks.  All at once, the image of God waiting to come inside struck me in a way that it had not before.  I have long been familiar with the classic Hassidic dictum of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev that "God dwells where we let God in."  Yet, for the first time I began to sense the contradiction  at the heart of this quote. 

The idea that each of us is a mikdash "a hollow structure with the potential for housing holiness"is a powerful one.  Yet, it is up to us to allow holiness to fill the space.  It is only through acknowledging and being mindful of the emptiness within that allows us to sense the presence of God outside of us.  Without this sense of God without we cannot experience God within.  That is the paradox.  That is the contradiction that fuels our desire for God. 

As human beings, we cannot but help feel lonely, empty, isolated and depressed at various times in our lives.  Rather than focusing on the emptiness and wallowing in sorrow or fear, as many of us are prone to do, this paradigm allows us to shift our focus.  Instead of focusing simply (is anything about this simple?) on the emptiness inside and filling ourselves with pity we can instead allow the feeling of emptiness to call us to recognize what it is that is causing us to feel empty.  For it is the warmth of the Divine Presence around us that allows (or causes?) us to feel the cold of the emptiness within.  Just as feeling cold is the impetus for us to light a fire or turn up the heat, so the feeling of emptiness is the impetus for us to turn to God and open the door to let God in. 

The more we recognize the paradoxes and contradictions within, the more we can acknowledge what causes us to feel discomfort, pain or suffering.  The more we acknowledge those feelings, the more opportunity there is to recognize the opposing feelings that exist outside of our home/body.  If we recognize this we are not only providing ourselves with an opportunity to let the Divine enter our hearts and our lives, but we are also denying the ego its hold over us.   

For in reality, constant, single-minded focus on our internal struggles and emptiness is merely another form of ego-centered .  Even focusing on our feelings of insecurity or lack of self-esteem is a form of ego-centrism, for it keeps us focused on ourselves and prevents us from being mindful of God's presence.  It keeps us from noticing and acknowledging the paradox that then leads us to action.  Merely focusing inward on oneself allows us to delude ourselves into imagining that there is an internal consistency, even if that consistency is a feeling of emptiness or pain.  And that belief in consistency breeds ego-centered stasis, apathy and resolution instead of spiritual passion, desire and revolution. 

Through inviting and allowing God's presence to enter and take its place within our own holy dwelling place, we then discover the potential to go outside of our egos and ourself and connect with others and the world around us.  This does not mean that the pain, sadness, or difficulties in our lives will miraculously disappear.  However, the miracle that occurs when we allow the Divine into ourselves is that we can then begin to turn outward in order to connect so that we can give each other the strength to face the difficulties in our lives that we all share. 

The contradictions and paradoxes of our lives are the matter that fuels the fires and leads us to Divine-human interaction.  Without them, our internal mikdash is simply an empty space of unfulfilled potential.  To live one's life that way is to waste what we have been given by God.  To live one's life that way is to choose a living death over living life, selfishness over connection and emptiness over holiness.  To live one's life that way is to turn away God and to waste the precious gift that has been given to each of us, for we may never know what it means to have the Divine dwelling in our midst, even though it has always been there. 

Shabbat Shalom,

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