Parashat Terumah

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Sermon Alyth Gardens Synagogue
Parashat Terumah, 5th of February 2011

Eternal Flame

It is easy to focus on the externals.

At first glance, Parashat Terumah reads like a posh handbook for exclusive interior decorators. The text indulges in elaborate descriptions of the beautiful and ostentatious Mishkan. We are treated to a veritable treatise on physical beauty and material wealth: precious metals, costly fabrics and even exotic materials. Finely woven curtains dyed in royal blue, purple and crimson, vessels of pure gold and panels of acacia wood. This all culminates in the description of the seven-armed Menorah. To be made from a single clump of gold, beaten and shaped into elegant floral forms, the Menorah represents a masterpiece of Biblical craftsmanship.

The true masterpiece, however, is made by internal craftsmanship. The craftsmanship of the soul, honed both by acts of goodness in ourselves and an awareness of goodness in the world. ‘V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham’ - ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’(Ex. 25:8) the Parasha tells us.

For the Torah, the external and internal are entwined. The Divine is both transcendent and immanent, a mystery to our world and yet so profoundly bound to it. The veils of the Mishkan both reveal and obscure. But all is fundamentally One.
If we only focus on the external, half the universe slips away from us. After all, the pasuk does not say ‘V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti sham’ – ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell there’.
No, it is the word ‘betocham’, ‘amongst them’, that unifies the apparent contradictions of what lies in front of and within us.
In the Midrashic imagination of the Rabbis, the Mishkan is the metaphor and microcosm of our universe. Each step of its creation corresponds to the six days of Creation described in Bereshit (Midrash Rabbah). This is a compelling reading of our ‘axis mundi’, the navel of the world. In another rabbinic imagining, the Mishkan and her component parts represent the human body and soul (Midrash haGadol). And so, the construction of the Tabernacle is in many ways the construction of our inner selves. Rather than journeying to the centre of the earth, we plunge the depths of our own being.

Excavating the rich layers within ourselves requires a methodology, of course, and in Judaism, Mussar provides such a methodology. Mussar is the traditional Jewish discipline that hones our moral and spiritual characteristics. The 11th century Mussar master, rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekudah composed his primary work, ‘Chovot haLevavot’, ‘Duties of the Heart’ as a handbook for real ‘interior decorating’!
In his writing, Bachya refers to a beautiful verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) that solders itself onto the deeper truths of our Parasha.

Ner Hashem nishmat adam chofesh kol chadrei baten’ – ‘the lamp of the Eternal is the soul of man, searching all its inner chambers’ (Proverbs 20:27). This verse helps us on our inner journey. It is the ‘duty of our heart’ to probe our inner Mishkan and to light our inner Menorah. If Deuteronomy (20:19) likens a person to a ‘tree in the field’, then why cannot one be likened to the splendid, seven-branched candelabra that stood rooted in the Holy of Holies?

It seems fitting that if our bodies are garbed in the beauty of the external world, our souls are lit by Divine light. Our souls, hewn from a single block of solid gold, delicately and painstakingly hammered into branches and receptacles, hold and nourish this Divine light. Rashi comments on the Torah’s requirement that the Menorah should be hewn from a single block of pure gold, ‘zahav tahor’. He explains that the gold may not be fragmented. The Menorah should remain whole.

We too, should remain whole.

Just as it is tempting to focus on externals, it is also tempting to focus on divisions. When we fail to regard ourselves as both whole and pure, we experience cognitive dissonance and cracks appear in our sense of self-respect. Being a ‘lamp of the Eternal’ does not mean that we have to grind ourselves down, or break ourselves up at the molecular level. The inner work of Mussar, of polishing our lamp should not leave us feeling torn or diminished but rather lovingly refined, the essence of our souls left intact.
This great task of shaping our lamp and lighting its wicks should empower us to see ourselves for whom and what we really are, even if it means probing our darkest and innermost reaches and asking ourselves difficult questions. Yet it is important to remember the line from the morning blessings, ‘Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehorah hi’ – ‘My God, the soul that You have placed in me, she is pure’. We recite this in our liturgy through which we courageously affirm the value of ourselves.

It may be easy to focus on the external but it is rewarding to take up the Torah’s challenge. Lovingly give yourself this gift, this ‘terumah’, of what is precious to you. Light your inner fire and take up the lamp of your soul. Ask yourself what you would like to refine and polish and what dark corners you would like to search. Practice kindness and openness of heart, cherish your curiosity and idealism, embrace growth and change. But above all, love yourself. This process will be arduous and sometimes painful but remember you are not alone. In this great journey of life, God can be a lamp to your soul and a lantern for your feet. Perhaps then you can see your light in God’s Light (psalm 36:9). Cherish the beauty of the internal and external, of heaven and earth, all unified in the nexus of our inner Temple.

V’shachanti betochecha’, the Eternal will whisper, ‘and I shall dwell with you’.
May it be so.

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