Parashat Terumah: Making space

The building of the mishkan did not change God, but it changed Israel. God may be the same everywhere, but we are not.

mishkan tabernacle 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
mishkan tabernacle 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A friend was teaching young children about the Jewish idea of God and told them that God was everywhere. One boy reached out his hands, clapped them together and said, “Got Him!”
We are spatially oriented creatures. Although love, justice, mathematics and other accompaniments of life exist apart from physicality, God remains difficult to separate in our thoughts from notions of place. The rabbis explain that God is indeed called makom (place) because God is the place of the world, although the world is not God’s place. God is imminent but also not confined to this world. Yet in our thoughts we locate God spatially, imagining God dwelling in the heavens or being more present in synagogues than in sewers.
Terumah, with its detailed creation of the mishkan, reminds us that human beings need sacred space. “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).” God dwells not in the sanctuary but among the people. You will feel God’s presence if there is a space to do so. Yet the very idea of space, even metaphorically, provokes a difficult question: how can we inhabit a world that is filled with God? How can we make a structure that is where God is, or could be? One response to these and similar questions is the idea of tzimtzum (contraction).
Tzimtzum reintroduces the idea of God’s space in a metaphysical sense. Is there an area of not-godness? The rabbis use the idea of God’s contraction (metzamtzem) of the divine presence to the mishkan (Pesikta DeRav Kahana 2:10). Hundreds of years later, Rabbi Isaac Luria elaborated the idea of tzimtzum into a major kabbalistic idea – God’s self-limitation was necessary in order to create an empty space for the world to exist.
We are approaching the holiday of Purim. God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther. The reader feels a motive force behind the improbable events, but it is as if God has stepped back to allow the human actors to create the drama. Esther’s name, meaning “hiding” is a kind of contraction and in the beginning of the story she has held back part of herself. When she finally is revealed for who she is, we recognize that God is hidden so that human heroes take the stage.
This contraction began with the onset of creation. In Genesis 17:1 God calls Himself “El Shaddai” and on Resh Lakish’s comment in the Talmud that, “I am the One who said to the world dai! (Enough!) the Torah Temimah elaborates: God stopped creating, said “dai” because the world would otherwise have no space for human creativity or initiative. This modeling of contraction is powerful not only theologically but interpersonally. Every parent knows that withdrawing to allow children room is essential to growth. Every teacher must be careful not to simply pour out everything she knows. God gave us space not only to allow us to flourish, but to teach us how to give that space to one another. We have also learned, in the apparent absence of God’s presence, to seek God, sharpening our spiritual faculties in the search.
God is not ‘more present’ inside the sanctuary than out on the street. The building of the mishkan did not entice the divine presence to dwell where it would otherwise be absent. Rather, the human demonstration of devotion evokes God’s spirit. God’s presence awaits our willingness. God is, as the Kotzker Rebbe famously said, wherever we let God in.
With all its specifications, the mishkan is intended to produce an effect on human beings, not on God. There is a beautiful story told of the great Seer of Lublin when he was a boy. He used to visit the forest and when his father asked him why, the boy explained, “I go there to find God.” When his father smiled and said, “but my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” the future hassidic master answered, “God is, but I’m not.”
The building of the mishkan did not change God, but it changed Israel. God may be the same everywhere, but we are not. 
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.