February 16th, 2018
2 Adar 5778
In this weeks Parsha, Terumah, God tells Moses to come up to the summit of the Mountain and hear God’s instructions for the people of how to build a Dwelling place, a sanctuary for God. God says,
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
Now let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
God then goes on to deliver detailed instructions for the people in the building of the Mishkan. These instructions seem to suggest that in order for God to dwell among the people, they must work together and the methods by which the people are to build this Tabernacle are very specific. We hear exactly which textiles, precious metals, and stones are acceptable. We learn exactly how big or how small each piece should be. We learn that it should be beautiful, majestic, yet practical and protective of its contents. It should have the ability to move and adapt so that the people could dismantle it at a moment’s notice and move on in their journey toward the promised land.
One midrash imagines Moses’ reaction to God’s instructions in the following way: “When God said to Moses, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary,’ Moses responded, ‘Master of the Universe, the highest heavens cannot contain You, and yet You say, Let them make Me a sanctuary?!’” God then reassures Moses, saying, “Moses, it will not be as you think. Rather, I will descend and contract my presence among you below” (Pesikta DeRav Kahana, 2:10). I will contract myself - m'tzamtzem - comes from the same root as a concept called "tzim tzum" which is spiritual and kabbalistic notion that deals with the infinate nature of God.
I will contract myself – m’tzamtzem – comes from the same root as a concept called “tzim tzum” which is a spiritual and kabbalastic notion that deals with the infinite nature of God.
In the beginning, the Kabbalists teach, there was only God and nothing else. God was vast and infinite and could not be constrained by physical boundaries. When God decided to create something from nothing, God had to contract that infinite presence, in order to make space for the finite. God’s contraction allowed for the process of creation to begin and for the vast nothingness, to be filled up with something and that something was the result of God’s wisdom in the act of tzimtzum.
As people, we also engage in acts of tzim tzum. Each time we compromise in our relationships with those we love; setting aside our own hard headedness in order to make space for the opinions of others. Each time, we find ourselves collaborating or even delegating responsibilities at work, or allow our own ego to shrink a bit to allow us to exist is relationships with others. Each of these are acts of tzim tzum in our lives and mirror this idea of God’s contraction in the first moments of creation.
God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel that they shall bring me terumah (gifts.)” But not just from anyone. God specifically says that these gifts must come “מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו” – from whose heart shall so move them.
God asks for gifts, very specific ones at that, and yet God only wants the thing if you want to give it. Rashi explains that this language indicates nedavah or goodwill and therefore, though the gifts are requested by God, the giver must be moved to do so, or the gift is rendered meaningless. Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in NYC writes, “A real divine-human relationship depends on God making space for humanity. The covenants between God and Israel and between God and humanity thus depend upon a kind of tzimtzum. In order to summon us as partners, God needs to affirm and respect our independence.” So the lesson, as I see it, lies in those three little words: "asher yidveinu libo" - those whose hearts moved them.
“asher yidveinu libo” – those whose hearts moved them.
Rabbi Held further writes, “One of the premises of biblical thinking, for example, is that God makes space for human agency, and allows us the freedom and the power to impact upon the world in significant ways. God is, a modern Bible scholar writes, a “power- sharing” rather than a power-hoarding God. This means that we can obey God’s will or thwart it. We can care for a person in pain or ignore her. We can cure illness or invent new ways of inflicting death and devastation. We can sanctify Shabbat or utterly profane it. God wants human beings to have meaningful freedom, and that means that God has to contract some—most, and sometimes all—of God’s power.”
From the very start of the Biblical narrative, we are taught that each human being is made in the Divine Image, B’tzelem Elohim and if that holds true, then each person who offers their unique gifts is indeed, imbued with a Divine spark. If this is so, then perhaps the mikdash itself was not the dwelling place after all. The level of specificity in God’s instruction seems unnecessary, and yet perhaps, the project of building mikdash was a means by which God encouraged us to coalesce as a society. It provided the people a common goal around which to rally so that each individual, indeed created B’tzelem Elohim, could tap into their unique and Divine spark and therefore, offer those gifts for the good of the people.
The idea that the people should build a sanctuary that God might dwell in their midst is not only beautiful and poignant but a powerful metaphor for community. However, the Hebrew of this statement is interesting and worth noting as, it doesn’t say Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in IT but rather, in them, in the people. If we believe that God is indeed all powerful but that God contracts that power in order to give us freewill. We must also believe that God trusts that when we find our unique gifts of our own accord, that we in turn will use those gifts for the sake of God, for the sake of community and for the sake of each one another.
If we believe that God is indeed all powerful but that God contracts that power in order to give us freewill. We must also believe that God trusts that when we find our unique gifts of our own accord, that we in turn will use those gifts for the sake of God, for the sake of community and for the sake of one another.
It is this very idea that makes a week like this one so hard. Each one of the lives stolen in the shooting in Florida this week brought with it unique and God given gifts that the world will now never have the privilege to see realized. The dialogue around this issue is so polarized and divisive that each time another act of violence like this one occurs, it feels like another small piece of our country breaks apart and that community, that sanctuary in which God desired to dwell, feels further and further out of our reach.
It is in times like these that the Divine idea of tzim tzum becomes all the more critical. If each of us could contract just a bit to make space for the opinions and beliefs of others, perhaps real dialogue, and in turn, real change might be possible. If God had not seen fit to contract God’s presence and power to make room for the creation of the world, none of us would be here. And it seems, that if we cannot see fit to do the same, that perhaps we will only continue to distance ourselves further and further from one another and ultimately, further from God.
In our tradition we have many names for God one of which Mastir Panim, the one who hides their face. In these moments of tragedy, it can feel like God is indeed hiding from us, hiding the Divine countenance, contracting not out of desire to create but out of sorrow and heart break. And yet, if we believe that God is inside of all of us then it is our job to discover the gifts by which to draw God out. It is our job to create a world in which God can indeed dwell. Can you imagine if each time we looked into the face of our neighbor, before we saw anything else we saw the face of God?
Can you imagine if each time we looked into the face of our neighbor, before we saw anything else, we saw the face of God?
Alice Walker writes in The Color Purple, “Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for Him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did it too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
May we, even in times that feel dark and full of dread, always come together to share God and to share that which is uniquely ours to offer. May our many gifts ultimately, help us to rebuild this broken world. And may we always remember that when it comes to building something holy, we all have something to contribute and as long as we build it with our hearts, God will indeed dwell in our midst.