Does a sacred text have to be historically factual in order to be true?
Parshat Terumah (“Gifts”) is replete with clear and precise instructions about how a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, a beautiful dwelling place, is to be built to serve as God’s earthly residence and as a portal for communication between God and Moshe.
Every detail is lovingly set out: what materials are to be used (gold, silver, copper, and twisted linen and acacia wood) and for what purposes, in both the interior and the exterior; how the various parts are to be aligned and joined together to create the Tabernacle’s structure; what colors are to be emphasized (woven, embroidered cloths of “blue, purple and crimson yarns”), symbolic of royalty.
Perhaps most important, the Torah states (Ex. 25:2) that kol ish asher y’daber libo, “every person whose heart is so moved,” is to contribute these materials as free-will gifts for building the Mishkan; the whole community is to be involved, men and women alike.
Yet, as biblical scholar Carol Myers tells us (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”): “The wealth of seemingly exact details in the instructions for the Tabernacle belies the fact that such a structure probably never existed.” She continues: “It is helpful to remember that behind the mass of arcane details lies a yearning for God’s presence and an attempt to establish a relationship between divine immanence and transcendence, in other words, God’s abilities to be ‘right here’ and ‘everywhere’ at the same time.”
And so we get to the essence of this week’s teaching. Whether or not the building of the Mishkan as described in Torah was ever factually true, to me the deep spiritual truth of this parshah lies exactly in that yearning for an assured and accessible way, for each of us as individuals — and, at the same time, for all of us collectively, no matter where we are — to form a meaningful connection with Divinity.
The true Mishkan, therefore, doesn’t have to be a physical structure built in a specific place or time at all. As it may well have been for our ancient Israelite ancestors, it is a metaphysical construct — a vision — that can accompany us wherever we go, fulfilling the Divine promise (Ex. 25:8) that the Shechinah (God’s holy Presence) will always “dwell among them.”
Perhaps, whenever we give terumah, voluntary gifts “over-and-above,” to a cause we believe in toward tikkun olam, we’re creating a Mishkan, a dwelling place for godliness.
Whenever we reach out to someone in need or assist young people in achieving their life’s dream, we’re creating a Mishkan. Whenever we welcome a stranger or form new friendships across a cultural divide, we’re creating a Mishkan. When we help a newlywed couple with the down payment on their first home or work alongside neighbors to plant a community garden, we’re creating a Mishkan.
We don’t need to build it of rare wood, precious metals and fine cloth. All that’s necessary is to be able to see it clearly in our mind’s eye, in our heart’s yearning, resplendent in the heavenly colors of a sunrise. PJC
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the spiritual leader for the independent chavurah Makom HaLev. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.