The Book of Exodus comprises three sections: nation building, receiving the Torah, and building the tabernacle. The portion we will discuss here begins the third and final section – the commandment to Moses and the people to build a tabernacle.
In the middle of the detailed instructions regarding the dimensions of the tabernacle and the material from which it is to be built, a single verse has become the subject of volumes of commentary: “Have them make a tabernacle for me and I will dwell among them.” In the original Hebrew, in particular, this verse sounds a bit strange. Surely we would expect it to read “Have them make a tabernacle for me and I will dwell in it.”
The Admor of Siget, the nineteenth century author of the work Yetav Panim, commented: “Quite simply, since the Jewish people said ‘we will do and we will understand,’ they accepted the Torah with a willing heart and soul, so that they put action before understanding. So immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, said ‘Let them take a donation for me,’ etc., to make a tabernacle, as written below [Numbers 25:8], “and have them make a tabernacle for me and I will dwell among them’ [Jeremiah 7:4] – ‘in the hearts they are the temple of the Lord’, and they were found to worthy that their heart be in their possession…” [Yetav Panim B 12b).
Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah group - Congregation YOZMA in Modi'in, 2017
If the tabernacle, with all its gold, ram skins, purple, and scarlet, is merely material, then it is no more than idol worship. The tabernacle is first and foremost a temple of the heart. God cannot dwell in any structure, but God can certainly dwell in the human heart, among people – in their relationships among themselves and with others.
The revolution that began with the Rabbinical Judaism of the Sages was, perhaps unwillingly, one that involved leaving the physical temple. This revolution reached its peak some 1,500 years later with the Hasidic movement. This movement, like the Admor that was just quoted, believed that the Holy of Holies lies deep inside every one of us.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk used to say: the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) can be found wherever people let it in…
So how do we let the Shechinah in? In the middle of all the temptations and bustle around us, how can we make a temple of the heart?
For some of us, this is too hard. Some of us want to establish a physical home that will clearly delineate the place of holiness. But it seems to me that Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk was right. The Shechinah does not really need a home, it just needs a place to come in. This is what we mean by “sanctifying,” for example – sanctifying time.
This evening’s Kabbalat Shabbat is dedicated to a group of mothers and Bat Mitzvah girls I have been privileged to get to know over the past few months. The mothers and girls decided to make this kind of temple. They set aside a lot of time to make sure that their hearts are in their own possession. So that this stage in their lives – as twelve-year-old girls and as the mothers of these girls – will not pass without meaning. They come every week, after a long day’s work or a tiring day at school. For a while, they set aside all their chores and tasks and simply sanctify time – for themselves and for each other. And as they do so, there are moments when the Shechinah enters.
In our Torah portion, the temple is built by means of donations. The Hebrew word for donation – terumah – reminds me of the word hitromemut, which means uplifting. When I throw myself into a task, I also have to recruit my heart and spirit. By giving of myself I move beyond myself. Donation (Trumah) leads to uplifting (Hitromemut) and the body soars.
It’s no coincidence that the temple was built through donations.
At the beginning of last week, on the 30th of Shvat, we celebrated Family Day. This week we are celebrating International Women’s Day. The twenty-first century has sometimes been called “women’s century.” Most of us are aware of the untapped potential of over half of humankind. The expression “women’s century” encapsulates so much hope for a more just, balance, diverse, and containing world – for men and women alike.
Over the past week, I have been hearing the first chapter of the Book of Esther over and over again as I prepare to read the Megillah. Time after time I hear about how Vashti refuses to come to the men’s banquet. And straight after, the seven ministers of Persia and Media immediately realize the inherent danger of a woman who has her own opinion:
“Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt.”
Vashti was easily silenced because she was a lone voice. Only when women manage to build solidarity with other women, and with men too, is it possible to create a tabernacle inside us.
I look at those young girls joining us to celebrate their becoming b'not mitzvah, with the future that lies inside them, and I think about the world we are passing on to them. I think about our donation to them. I think a lot about their mothers, whose daily actions are creating a different model for strong, conscious, and resolute femininity that is at the same time soft and considerate.
I think this modest donation of this miniature temple can make a good start in building a tabernacle inside us, if only we sanctify time for this purpose. If only we sanctify thought. If we join in and donate, then maybe “they will make me a tabernacle and I will dwell among them.”
Rabbi Alona Nir Keren – Kehillat YOZMA in Modi'in