This week we begin the long description of the building of the Tabernacle - a portable Temple - by the Israelites in the desert. The Torah, over the next few parshas, will go into great detail about the materials used and the vessels and furnishings that were fashioned for this movable holy place. In this week’s parsha, Truma, the process begins with a simple commandment: ” And God spoke to Moshe, saying: ’speak to the children of Israel and take for me an offering (in Hebrew a ‘truma’ - hence the name of the parsha) from each individual whose heart moves him to give, take my offering.’” The Torah then briefly describes the essential materials which are to be given for the project by the people of Israel: gold, silver, brass, types of cloth and animal skins, oil, spices, precious stones, all of these must be brought by the people. God concludes this first, organizing commandment by saying “And they shall make for me a Temple, that I may dwell among them.”
I would like to share with you some Rabbinic commentaries on this last verse, and see what we can make of them. One of the most famous comments on this verse, and in fact on the entire project of building the Tabernacle, is rather late; as far as I can tell it is post-Talmudic, and first appears among Kabbalists in the 13th century. There is also a source for it in the Zohar, whose origin is a matter of dispute. This comment is based on the following question: shouldn’t the Torah have said “And they shall make for me a Temple that I may dwell in it” - in Hebrew “b’tocho” - rather than “dwell among them” - “b’tocham”? Isn’t the point of building a Temple for God that He will dwell within its holy confines? The inference drawn from the Torah saying that God will dwell “among them” is that God dwells, through the construction of the Tabernacle, not in the building itself (which, after all, would imply a corporeality on God’s part with which we would not be comfortable), but, rather, that through the act of building a Temple, God actually dwells among the people.
This idea is presented in a variety of ways by a number of sources. Some have Him dwelling in our hearts, others in our bodies, or simply among the people. Whatever the specifics are, this is a powerful idea, and I would like us to keep it in mind as we look at the next two sources, which are Talmudic in origin. In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, the Rabbis look at our verse and point out that the words “And they shall make for me a Temple that I may dwell among them” can be read as implying that it is the act of making the Temple, rather than the finished product, which invites God’s presence. The people of Israel, by the act of making a Temple, will cause God to dwell among them - again, not in the Temple itself, but, perhaps, among those who worked to build it for God - the same “they” who build the Tabernacle are the “them” among whom God will dwell.
From this we learn the importance of work - “Rabbi Tarfon says: great is labor, for even the Holy One Blessed Be He did not cause his presence to dwell in Israel until they did work, as it is written “and they shall make for me a Temple that I may dwell among them.” In a similar vein, the Rabbis, in Tractate Temura, point out that the words “for me” in the phrase “and they shall make for me a Temple” would seem to indicate that the work, once done, belonged to God - the labor done by the Israelites in the making the Temple is owned by Him. How is this so? The same way that any work done by one group of people can come to belong to someone else - because He paid for it; the people who worked on the Tabernacle were entitled to take their pay from the sanctified material in the Temple treasury. They were not asked, or commanded, by God to work for free; he purchased their labor. This Midrash would seem to teach us that all work, even - perhaps especially - the work done to build the Temple, deserves to be, and must be, paid for. The Temple becomes God’s, and God’s presence can then be with the Jewish people, only when He lives up to the very human value of paying for a job well done, and actually purchases it.
It seems to me that, taken together, these Midrashim are all pulling us in a specific direction. The Temple is seen by these statements as, first and foremost, the product of human activity, and therefore, a repository of human, rather than divine, concerns and values. The big question that is traditionally asked about the Temple is this: how can we imagine that we can build a building, no matter how large, how ornate, how magnificent, which will actually house God? As King Solomon said about the Temple which he built, “Can God truly dwell on the earth? The heavens, and the heavens above the heavens do not contain him, nor will this house which I have built.” These Midrashim answer this question, and, in doing so, turn on its head the very idea of a Temple. Rather than being about God and the impossible notion of a house for Him, the Temple really is about us, and our efforts to include the divine in our lives. And the way in which we accomplish that is by the very activities, and values, which are honored by the Midrashim we saw above - the value of work, and, stemming from that, the importance of paying for work which has been done by others. By telling us that God really dwells among us, and not in the Temple, the Rabbis are telling us that it is to ourselves, and our actions, that we must look if we are to understand what the presence of God really means.
The locus of God’s presence, the place of sanctity, is not the building, the finished product, standing apart from the hours of toil put into it by the people of Israel. It is, rather, those hours of toil, and God’s recognition of them, that is the real Temple, the true place where God chooses to dwell. I cannot help but compare this to the great cathedrals of Europe. The product of the labor of countless generations of nameless individuals, their grandeur seems to somehow render insignificant the vary labor that went into their construction. It is the cathedral itself, in all its magnificence, which is the point, and not the labor, duly paid for and appreciated, of the thousands of faceless individuals who actually brought the cathedral into existence. The Temple, rather than crushing into insignificance the human perspective, rather than subsuming human effort into a divine structure which ultimately surpasses and negates the relevance of the very effort put into the making of that structure, instead emphasizes, and privileges, the human concerns which were involved in the construction of the Temple.
These Rabbinic statements remind us that, rather than belittling human concerns and efforts, the Temple underscores their importance. The Temple doesn’t transcend human values and aspirations, it reaffirms them, and presents them to us as the true location of sanctity. In the every-day activities of working and being paid for your work, the Torah finds the presence of God. This lesson finds its ultimate expression in the tradition which tells us that God, in fact, does not dwell in the Temple, in a place which has a life and importance of its own, divorced from the very people who constructed it. Rather, he dwells, “among them”, in the very warp and woof of human effort and enterprise; He dwells within our efforts to create a place of holiness, and not in some holy place which stands separate from those efforts.