A blueprint for building sacred communities


Parashat Terumah

This week, we read the first of five Torah portions dedicated almost entirely to the building of the mishkan, the portable Temple that the Israelites took with them throughout their desert wanderings. For the rest of the book of Exodus, we read about each and every little detail of this sacred construction project: the materials to be used, the design, the precise dimensions, even the methods to be used in the carving and hammering.

The building of the mishkan is described with such detail that it seems almost like a manual for repeating the job. Yet, this was a one-time project. Why, then, would the Torah – a text that does not waste words or include insignificant details – spend so much time describing how to build something that will never again be built?

Perhaps the Torah spends so much time describing the building of the mishkan because this is not (only) a guide for this one particular construction project, rather, it is a guide for building sacred communities in any time or place. In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, God says: V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tokham. “Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst all of you” (Exodus 25:8). Perhaps the use of the word “you” in the plural is meant to indicate not only every Israelite within the community that left Egypt, but also all of us throughout all time. Just as the ancient Israelites were commanded to build the mishkan, so too should we create a holy center for communal life and worship, where a sense of the Divine can prevail.

The value of retelling the narrative of this sacred construction project in such detail, then, is not only for us to re-live the experience our ancestors had of building God’s dwelling place, but also for us to recognize the care, precision and detail that must go into creating any community, and to glean wisdom from the process of building the mishkan that we can use in building our own sacred centers today.

For me, the most powerful lessons in these chapters are the lessons about who must be involved in creating a sacred community, and how they are to engage in this holy task. First, there must be an element of equal, universal contribution. Later in the book of Exodus, we read that every head of household was expected to contribute exactly one half shekel to the building of the mishkan, no more, no less. This significant but minimal monetary contribution was used to make all of the silver fasteners, so that there was at least one tangible part of this holy building that everyone had contributed to in equal share.

At the same time, our sacred communities must be contributed to in ways that are personally meaningful. Our parashah opens with God asking Moses to “tell all the Israelite people to bring Me gifts. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2).  As the story continues, we read of both men and women who willingly brought materials, gave of their time, and drew on their various skills to contribute to the construction of this holy space.

Those who were knowledgeable of metalcraft molded the metal vessels; women used their knowledge of fabric arts to create curtains and clothing for the priests; woodworkers carved, hammered and nailed. Each person gave what he could, whether material goods or time and knowledge, whether his gift was large or small.

Although some may have given much and others may have given little, our Torah also teaches us that each person’s gift was equally valued. Repeatedly, we read a list of 13 types of materials that were used to build the mishkan, always in the same order. This list goes from precious metals such as gold and silver, to beautifully dyed yarns and animal skins, different types of wood, oils and spices, and precious gems. The order of this list almost seems arbitrary. It is not the order in which materials will be used, nor is it organized by value. This led to a powerful interpretation offered by the Or HaChayim, who wrote that the order of this list teaches that “all of the thirteen kinds of materials should be equally welcome. Someone who contributed linen or skins was not to be looked down upon when compared to someone who contributed gold.” In other words, in order to build a dwelling place for God, everyone’s contribution had to be equally valued – not because of what it was worth, but because it was given with a desire to be part of creating something holy.

These are just a handful of the many lessons we can learn from reading the instructions for building the mishkan. In order to build holy communities, the entire community must take part. No one can simply sit back and let others give of their time, money and skills, and then take advantage of the results. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone should donate the same things in the same way. Communities are enhanced when they draw on the specific skills, resources and interests of their members. Some are better at weaving, others at woodwork. Some have gold and jewels to give, others have time and energy. Each of these things is equally valuable, as long as these things are given willingly and for the sake of the community. It is only when all members of a community takes part in their own unique way, and when every person’s contribution is equally valued, that a holy community can be built.

RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.