Commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, Psalms and other biblical texts. Written by Rabbi Steven Nathan, these are based on mindfulness principles, mystical tradition and personal musings. (Note: for those unfamiliar, Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy. A different parashah/portion is chanted in the synagogue each week so that the entire Torah is read over the course of each year)
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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'
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.