Terumah 5782 – So Where, Exactly, is the Holy Presence?

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Some time back, I listened to an episode of a podcast called, “Freakonomics,” in which economic ideas are presented and discussed in an entertaining way. In this episode, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, discussed the IKEA effect. IKEA, that is, the store. What researchers found was that if an individual creates something, they value it monetarily a lot more than if someone else had created that same object. Thus the name, IKEA, a company from which consumers buy the raw materials but essentially construct a piece of furniture for themselves.

The IKEA effect is as old as the Bible. In Psalm 128, we read, “When you eat the fruit of the labor of your hands, you will be happy, and it will go well with you.” (I didn’t dig that one up myself – I saw it in a writing from Rabbi Sacks.) Anyway, Ariely’s conclusion was that the effort we put into something doesn’t only change the object, it changes us, and the way we view that object. We value what we create.

In today’s parashah, we read of Gd’s instructions to the Israelites to build a sanctuary. And in one of the iconic verses in the entire Torah, the reason Gd gives to Moses was, “So that I may dwell among them.” Not necessarily in the sanctuary mind you, but among those who built it. Does Gd need the space? Of course not. But the Israelites needed the space. And as we will see in the episode of the Golden Calf, they were not yet mature enough to feel Gd’s presence. A sanctuary – a holy space – was what they needed to enable them to do just that.

The name of the parashah, Terumah, means gifts, or contributions. For those who contributed to the sanctuary, their gift was in the giving. It wasn’t the quality of the jewels on the breastplate, or the quality of the wood or the drapes. It was the fact that it was built out of the gifts of “Every person whose heart so moves them.” (25:2)

The parashah is a lesson, perhaps on how giving changes the giver. It struck me in reading this that perhaps one of the reasons why there was so much detail in the instructions wasn’t so that the tabernacle could be ornate. Rather, it was so that there would be something for every Israelite who wished to contribute, to be able to. The more people who had a part in the tabernacle’s construction, the more people would be invested, having had a stake in the enterprise.

So the question them becomes, how do we feel the holy presence – here in this room or, perhaps more importantly, once we leave the sanctuary.

Last week was the first session this semester for an online ESL class that I teach. The teachers were asked to show an object of special meaning to them to the other teachers. I showed the other teachers my grandfather’s citizenship paper from 1900. He went to school nights to learn English, having gotten off the boat from Kiev as a teenager, not speaking a word of English. Can you imagine what he would have thought if he had been told that he would have a grandson, who he would never meet, and who was now helping immigrants learn English, 120 years after he arrived, and who dedicated his class to him?

It struck me in preparing this D’var that here is the nexus between the two closely related themes of the parashah. As those who built the tabernacle in the desert must have learned, where and when people give of themselves, that’s where the holy presence resides. Giving of themselves to build the tabernacle, as giving of ourselves to any worthwhile cause creates a space for Gd to enter . . . and to dwell.

So Gd doesn’t dwell, or live, if I may use such a term, in this room – the room that houses Kehillat Chaverim; Gd lives in the builders and in the worshipers. Indeed, this could actually be a D’var about us and our kehillah. Back in 2013 we were a bit adrift for a short time, not knowing exactly what to do. Beit Aryeh was to terminate Shabbat morning services, and while we certainly could have continued attending services at Shearith Israel on Shabbat mornings, it would have been a long and unacceptable commute for some.

So with the generous offer from Guy and Becca, we essentially created this shul – Kehillat Chaverim. By building something together, we were transformed. We created space for Gd to dwell among us. As the desert-dwelling Israelites complained about the lack of water, macaroni and great living conditions, we could have similarly complained about our situation. But what we did instead was transformative. So it wasn’t what Gd did for us that made the difference, it was what we did for ourselves. . . and for Gd.

By combining two tropes of the parashah, we are taught a lesson for the ages. Creating a space for the Divine, giving of ourselves in creating that space and in other things we do in life . . . this is exactly where Gd wants us to be and what Gd wants us to be doing.