Parashat Terumah 5780
by Meir Sendor
This week’s parashah begins the Torah account of the Mishkan, the holy tent and curtained courtyard that becomes a sacred location for connection with God. Rabbi Yaakov Leiner faces the obvious, challenging question directly: what need is there for a specific location, a house for God? –
For in truth, “the whole earth is filled with His Glory,” and there is no place without the influence of HaShem, blessed be He, and He effects salvations continually, every day, every moment, and in every place. And from His vantage point there is no difference between this place and other places (Beit Yaakov, Shemot, Terumah, sec. 39).
In fact, God Himself asks this question rhetorically, through the prophet Yeshayahu:
ישעיהו פרק סו פסוק א
כה אמר יקוק השמים כסאי והארץ הדם רגלי אי זה בית אשר תבנו לי ואי זה מקום מנוחתי:
Thus says HaShem: the heavens are My Throne and the earth is My footstool, what kind of house shall you build for Me and what is the place of My resting?
Rabbi Leiner’s answer is that the Mishkan is valuable, not from God’s perspective, but from ours:
“HaShem contracts His flow of blessings according to the mind and grasp of a human being… for a human being cannot receive the overabundance of good (Ibid).”
Our minds and our hearts can’t open fully enough to receive the limitless blessings of Ein Sof, God the Infinite. Rabbi Leiner explains that the Mishkan and the devotional service it hosts have a pedagogic purpose. It serves as a specific symbolic location that challenges us and inspires us to work to cultivate moral and spiritual purity and sanctity, in order to focus our minds steadily and begin to appreciate God’s infinite gifts and guidance and to elevate our consciousness to transcendence. In contrast to religions that attempt to reduce the divine to human scale through representation in idols or incarnation, the Mishkan ingeniously calls us to elevate ourselves and expand our minds to experience the divine (Ibid).
The Mishkan is set of curtains and curtains within curtains that enclose a courtyard, a tent, an outer chamber, and behind an ornate curtain called the Parokhet, the inner chamber, the Holy of Holies, which encloses the Ark which frames: an empty space. Ingenious. The Zohar (1:65a) has a profound understanding of this innermost curtain setting off the empty space, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likkutei Mohara”n 1:24) provides insightful commentary in psychological terms.
According to Rabbi Nachman, those who have awakened to spiritual awareness find themselves driven and drawn passionately to reach for real relationship with God – Infinite, One, hidden from us yet indirectly revealed through Creation and Torah. As we work morally and spiritually to perfect ourselves and expand and elevate our consciousness to its purest state, to reach for the Infinite, we run up against a limit. Our highest, purest, most refined level of consciousness functions to stabilize and order our awareness, and also to maintain a sense of the boundary of our mind. In the Zohar’s terms, there is a spiritual curtain that stands between our highest consciousness and the light of the Infinite, a curtain symbolized by the Parokhet, the inner curtain of the Mishkan that conceals the Holy of Holies and its empty space. Running up against this limit, the recognition that we just have no process or capacity or faculty of mind capable of direct awareness of God the Infinite, we still find ourselves drawn to reach out beyond our consciousness, coming up empty and forced to retreat, reach out and retreat, beating against this curtain that is the limit of mind. It’s a risky process that can destabilize sanity. The Gemara Hagigah (14b) gives a cautionary account of the four rabbis who entered Pardes, the garden of mystical awareness, three of whom tried to push too far and suffered for it. Only one, Rabbi Akiva, entered and left in peace. And yet this drive to press against the limit is not futile. From the very effort and failure to grasp or conceive or know or understand or intuit, we learn the most subtle lessons in our relationship with God, lessons we can’t put into words or ideas, but that leave deep impressions of the reality of God in our heart. Such an experience is not entirely foreign to us. In our loving relationships, too, there is also longing and limit and the most subtle, inexpressible feelings of the heart. These too are not futile, they are most precious, and further deepen our sense of each other.
Ultimately the Mishkan, styled as a mobile, nomadic tent, is a place of loving relationship between the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel, a kind of RV for the great, romantic spiritual journey of the Jewish people:
שיר השירים פרק א פסוק ד
משכני אחריך נרוצה הביאני המלך חדריו נגילה ונשמחה בך נזכירה דדיך מיין מישרים אהבוך: ס
Draw me, we will run after you – the King brought me into His chambers – We will be glad and rejoice in you, We will praise your affection beyond wine — sincerely He loves you.