דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי: … וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָֽם
Dabeir el B’nei Yisrael v’yikkhu li terumah mei’eit kol ish asher yidvenu libo tik’khu et trumati … V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tocham.
Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me gifts — you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them … And you shall build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst (Exodus 25:2, 8).
Prior to revealing the Ten Commandments and their accompanying ordinances, God explained that if the Children of Israel fulfilled these mitzvot (commandments) they would become a גוֹי קָדוֹשׁ goy kadosh — a “holy people” (Exodus 19:6).
The word קָדוֹשׁ kadosh — “holy” or “sacred” — is a central term in Jewish life, and even if you do not know any Hebrew, you are probably familiar with its variants: we recite קַדִּישׁ Kaddish in memory of the dead, we recite קִדּוּשׁ Kiddush over the Shabbat wine, and the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was the בֵּית הַמִקְדָּשׁ Beit Hamikdash, the “House of Holiness” — all variants on the root meaning “holy.” Clearly, our assignment as Jews is to manifest קְדֻשָׁה kedushah (“holiness”) in the world.
In the language of the Torah, kedushah is a place or moment in which we experience the presence of the Divine. Judaism is acutely aware of the paradox inherent in this formulation. Is not the entire world already suffused with Divine Presence? And yet, we humans are uniquely capable of being oblivious to this sublime truth. We can be so self-centered that we treat others as objects for our self-gratification, and we treat the world as our possession to exploit. We desecrate God’s creation. Jewish tradition unequivocally claims that holiness pervades every particle of the universe. Our liturgy imagines the heavenly chorus of angels singing continuously, blissfully, proclaiming, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Creator of All, the whole earth is filled with Divine Glory!” and invites us to join in that ecstatic affirmation. Yet we remain stubbornly capable of willful ignorance.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk famously asked his disciples, “Tell me, where can God be found?” The students enthusiastically replied, “Why, Rebbe, everywhere, of course! Does not the Torah tell us that the whole earth is filled with Divine Glory!” “No,” said the rabbi, “God can only be found where we let God in.”
It is in this sense that Judaism teaches that God “needs” us. Of course, this personified language is poetic; even the earliest commentators, when speaking about God in these very human terms, would qualify their statements with the phrase כִּבְיָכוֹל kivyakhol, meaning “as it were.” The point is, it is clear that we have a vital role to play in bringing a sense of holiness into our consciousness and our communities. Without our spiritual participation, the holiness that is incipient in every place and every moment might not be realized, might be squandered or missed. It is in that sense that God — the glory that fills and animates the universe — “needs” us to become aware of the glorious potential of every moment and interaction.
God “needs” us to create holy spaces and holy moments in which the Divine Presence can dwell. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called this state of consciousness “radical amazement.” If I am able to be amazed by the person or place before me, then I have invited holiness into the world. I have made a place for God to dwell in our midst. Aware of this infinite bounty before me, how could I in that moment respond with anything but reverence, gratitude and generosity? This is a holy moment, a blessing for both the giver and the receiver (and who is actually the giver or the receiver in such moments?).
This week’s parashah, Terumah, instructs us to build a mikdash, a holy space in our midst. The chapters are filled with the details of construction: the ark, the menorah, the altar, the enclosure. We can easily get lost in these details and forget their symbolic purpose as reminders of the Divine potential inherent in our shared lives.
The crucial directive we are to follow is expressed, as is often the case, in the opening instruction of the parashah: Me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo tik’khu et trumati — “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” The first prerequisite for creating a dwelling place for the Divine in our midst is that it must be freely offered. Holy interactions cannot be mandated or coerced, and the sanctuary — the dwelling place for the Divine Presence that we build in our midst — will always be the result of the offerings of our hearts. The Torah later mandates an annual fixed amount that every Israelite must give for the upkeep of the sanctuary. But the creation of this sanctuary can only take place through the outpouring of unforced generosity.
Think of a moment when you experienced a Presence greater than you could describe. There are easy moments: holding a baby, watching a sunset. And there are moments that take more cultivation: intimate love, deeds of lovingkindness. And there are moments that simply take us by surprise: a spontaneous insight, a beam of sunlight angling through a ruined landscape, an act of goodness from a stranger. Holy, holy, holy, it is our challenge and privilege to perceive these holy moments and to string them together like beads of awareness into a dwelling place for God in our lives.
V’asu li Mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham — “And you shall build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst.”