Divrei Torah

Parashat Terumah


Parshat Terumah

Two among the Chilean miners who were rescued last year burn in my imagination. Neither of them
could be still while the rescue operation was underway. I understand this. One ran a marathon every
single day while the rest of the world was working above the ground. He ran through the caves and
corridors inside the mine. He ran to prepare himself for the liberation, but mainly I suspect, to maintain
body and soul while everything was going on above him. The other man sat reading the classics and
writing reflections in a journal, hopefully stories and poems. I favour the second way, the idea of
beautifying the soul-work of a person. My own grandfather was studying the Torah and Talmud on
the last day of his life and died in the midst of his Talmud studies. Ever-improving is the catch-all of
life. It’s the command that G-d tells you that He wants to join with you. So do we improve the mind or
do we improve the body? Either way it’s a noble enterprise, in the course of wanting to live for more.
Those two miners were not satisfied being passive. They wanted to be worthy of the new life they
were offered. In my own miniscule way of finding recovery, I also strive to bring tingle to dead bones
and muscle. I, at the same time, risk failure, but end up with an electricity sparking inside myself. The
prophet Ezekiel speaks of an electric current pulsing through the valley of bones, in the burial plots of
the underground. This we Jews pray for in the Amidah, when we call for the Tchiyat HaMetim – the
resurrection of the dead.

Parshat Terumah speaks these ideas. In its most famous sentence, G-d says: “Build me a sanctuary so
that I may dwell among the people.” We generally assume that He meant so He can dwell in the temple
itself. Some rabbis read it now that G-d intends to dwell in each of us, in the temple of our hearts. We
all must build our temple six days out of the seven in the week, to open our inner life so that we may
explore and enjoy Shabbat. Some say the temple is tangible; others say it is abstract. But we do know
that the temple was concretely built in the desert by the Israelites; the rest of this parsha, as well as the
next one, teaches the details and minutiae of the building.

There is a sort of gentle argument going on within Judaism throughout the millennia, especially in the
time when we don’t have the temple erected. Most Jews take their study of the Torah most seriously –
if they do take it seriously – with a mind of tachlis. “Give me the bottom line,” they say to the rabbis. “G-
d commands me to fulfill the mitzvah.” They even ask the rabbi: “Tell me what I’m supposed to believe.”
Fewer Jews are Jews of luft. They want to understand the concept of the mitzvah; they want to fill out
the poetry of G-d’s want in the world, to explore and implore the Almighty to give them a task of life-
giving beauty. They want to ever-advance the insight that advances their life. Of course we Jews need
both. But I rely heavily on luft to keep my expanse of wonder ever-present. There is not only this tug
between tachlis and luft, but there are two other competing aspects of Jewish theology. They are called
hashgacha-pratit and hashgacha-clalit. The former means a private and subjective relationship with G-
d. Every turn, every click and stick of an atom’s split, it all counts within your developing story. The latter
means the people’s relation with the Eternal One. Our history and our destiny as G-d’s treasured and
chosen nation. Christianity favours and takes on the individual. Islam emphasizes its own nation-building
which offers an exclusive “in” to fidelity with the Creator of the world. Both of those religions continue

to call for the conversion of the world. Meanwhile, Judaism has a tension between those two positions,
the universal and the specific. We can embrace both, or one or the other, or neither. We can also take
the tachlis with the luft. But at some point there is a definition that we make with our Judaism in life. At
some point you define yourself seriously. This is what G-d means by dwelling within us. We do our life’s
work in building the temple, building and re-building the temple. We invite G-d into the world among us
just as He invites us into the Heavenly abode. A Jew should live as if the Bible did not end at a specific
time in the past, but as if it is unending because of the lives we now live. When we leave this world and
are resurrected into the next, we will be asked which parts and which aspects of the Holy Temple we
built in our lifetime.

Now that the peace with Egypt is kaput we might reflect on the past thirty-five years of our relation
with modern Egypt. I will, without shame, boast of my father’s instrumental activity in bringing this
cold peace to fruition. Because of my father’s close association with Menachem Begin, the Carter
Administration called him up to Washington. They wanted to know if Menachem Begin was a genuine
man and of pure character. My father had a friendship with the Southern Baptist leader who was
the personal pastor of Jimmy Carter. The pastor vouched for my father, and Zbigniew Brzezinski (the
National Security Advisor) called him looking for some information. They had intercepted a plot to
assassinate Anwar al-Sadat. And they wanted to tell the Begin government to inform their mortal enemy
of this nefarious plot. Without hesitation, my father responded that Begin would rush to tell Sadat. This
is how Begin chose to begin building a relationship of trust that culminated in the peace talks that led
to returning the Sinai to Egypt and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Yamit. It was bold for Israel,
and a daring move for Begin, but nobody can deny the goodwill of every Jew and Israeli toward the
luftig ideal of peace for our people. We Jews know that it’s a beautiful world, and it’s our reponsibility
in mitzvot to do G-d’s work in actualizing that beauty in our lives, our nation’s life, and the lives of
everyone in the world.

We are building our temple. The question is where. The Israelites built their temple in the desert, in the
worst of the wastelands. The temple in Jerusalem was built at the highest point in the city, overlooking
the lowest point in the world. Whether we’re on top of the world or trapped in a mine beneath its
surface, our temple is being built. Whether in luft, air, or in tachlis, substance, our temple is being built.
Whether in bodyworks or in brainworks, our temple is being built. Whether in our individual hearts or
in the unified heart of our people, our temple is being built. And whether in peace or in search of peace,
we are building our temple so that G-d may dwell among us. Amen. Shabbat shalom.


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