The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. (Shemot 25;1-2)
This week’s Torah portion (or parsha) is Trumah (Shemot 25:1-27:19). The focus of this parsha is the instructions G-d gives for the aron kodesh (the Holy Ark) and the mishkan (the traveling tabernacle in which the ark is to be kept). In the first two verses, G-d instructs Moses to take an offering from the people. The following 94 verses lay out, in exacting detail, the dimensions and materials for constructing the mishkan, from the tent poles to the curtain rings and from the gate pillars to the tent pegs. Unless you are an architect or an engineer, there seems very little of interest in this parsha. However, the rabbis and Torah scholars have never read Torah literally: they have always looked for a more important metaphorical, metaphysical understanding. And so, there is a surprisingly large volume of commentary on Trumah. Most of the commentary focuses on the building of the mishkan as metaphor for preparing ourselves to live in the presence of G-d.
Each physical element of the mishkan has been compared by one scholar or other to some part of the human body. For example, the aron kodesh is often likened to the human heart. Rabbi Noson Weisz explains, “the human heart, which serves as the physical antenna and receiver of the spiritual force of ruach is the exact counterpart of the cherubim above the Ark in the Holy of Holies. Just as that is the point where the Divine voice connects with man, the ruach in man’s heart is the connection point with the neshama [soul], which represents the Divinity within man.” Or, as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explains it, every Jew is “a living tabernacle in miniature.”
Let’s take a closer look at the two opening verses. As with any text, nothing in Torah in there by accident. Every verse, every phrase, every word, even every letter has a purpose and contributes to the meaning. And so it is not insignificant that G-d tells Moses twice to collect an offering from the Israelites. Wouldn’t one command from G-d be sufficient? What is significant is what is added to the second command to take an offering: G-d instructs Moses to take the offering only from those “whose heart inspires him to generosity” (Shemot 25:2). And, there are two ways in which this phrase is significant. The first goes to the meaning of word from which this parsha gets its name, trumah. Trumah is an “offering,” not a levy or tax (for these, Torah uses the word meches). Levies and taxes are required, offerings are given willingly. Rashi likens this offering to a gift. The second point of significance reinforces the first. G-d instructs Moses to take this “gift” only from those whose hearts are inspired. At other times in Torah, when the Israelites are instructed to make offerings or pay taxes or levies, no distinction is made about who should follow this commandment. However, offerings made in order to build the mishkan, G-d’s dwelling place on earth, are voluntary not mandatory.
As for the mishkan being G-d’s dwelling place on earth, we need to look at that as well. In Trumah, G-d gives Moses instructions for the building of the mishkan. Later, in next week’s parsha, Tezaveh, G-d tells Moses that if the Israelites build the mishkan, G-d will “dwell in the midst of the children of Israel and I will be their God” (Shemot 29:45). Again, we must take note of what G-d says and of what G-d doesn’t say. While the aron kodesh will contain G-d’s physical words (i.e. the tablets G-d gives Moses on Mt. Sinai), the Shechina, G-d’s Divine Presence, dwells “in the midst” of the people. If we add this to the voluntary, generous nature of the offerings required to build the mishkan, then G-d’s dwelling among us and being our G-d is done at our invitation. In other words, G-d is a guest in our presence and in our hearts.
G-d as guest is an intriguing concept. First, we must view G-d as guest as function of our covenantal relationship with G-d. Like any contract, a covenant lays out the rights and responsibilities of both parties to each other. So, if G-d is our guest, what are our responsibilities? The responsibilities of host to a guest are layout clearly in several stories in Bereishit. One of these stories is the episode at Sodom and Gomorrah. The sin which brought about the destruction of the inhabitants of these two cities was their behavior toward strangers, and Lot is spared because he protected the guests in his house and would not turn them over to the mob. From this we learn that one of the most important responsibilities a host owes a guest in their home is to provide protection.
But does G-d, even as our guest, really need our protection? Of course not. But, there are many living in the world who do.
If we are generous of heart and build our world, our country, and our communities with intention and care, then all will be welcome, and any needing protection will be provided such. In this way, not only we will living in the presence of G-d but we will also be living in the image of G-d.