That, said my study group, is a question posed by Parshat Terumah.
They are a lovely group, from Havurat Hakerem in Columbia, South Carolina. International, diverse, and learned.
And one verse, close to the beginning of the parsha, caught their eye. God introduces Moses to the mishkan, dwelling-place, project. “Let them make me a holy place,” God says, “and I will dwell amidst them” (Ex. 25:8).
The study group wondered about the word “them.” Does it refer to the group as a whole or to every individual? In other words, would the act of working together on the project be a spiritual experience? Or, once the project was completed, would people come for a personal spiritual experience?
Either way, the group concluded, the mishkan would evoke divine presence.
Entering the mishkan, one student said, would be like lighting Shabbat candles. The ritual takes us to a special “island in time,” as A. J. Heschel said. It awakens a spiritual key in us, helps us feel God’s presence. The mishkan would be like an island in space.
But how would the mishkan evoke those feelings?
That’s where the specific building materials come in. Moses, God says, should invite only specific terumah, donations. “Gold, silver, and copper. Blue, purple, and crimson yarn. Fine linen, goats’ hair tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood. Oil for lighting. Spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense. Gems and other stones for setting” (Ex. 28: 3-7).
Midrash explains these artistic decisions. Rabbi Shmuel says they make us think of heaven. For example, god reminds us of the sun; and blue, the sky. Thus, at the mishkan, people would feel moved by creation’s beauty.
Another, unnamed, teacher says the materials bring the whole body into spiritual experience. For example, spices stimulate the palate. Light opens the eyes. And gemstones move the heart with their beauty.
Either way, our study group said, the humanly crafted mishkan makes God present to people.
So, they wondered, “Did God create humans or did humans create God?”
I certainly could not answer their question. But I could help think about it more deeply.
So, I reminded them of the first couplet in the piyyut (hymn) Adon Olam (Master of Time and Space.)
“Master of the Universe, who reigned before every form was created. When He made everything according to His will, then he was called by the name King.”
For the author of Adon Olam, I said, your question is not the “either/or” you think it is. Instead, it’s a “both/and.” A spiritual energy, entity, or being has always existed. But, until creatures came to be, no one was around to understand it as “God,” “Creator” or “King.” Thus, humans didn’t create the divine being itself. However, they certainly created religious ideas and rituals.
But, did humans create the idea that something exists beyond their ideas?
Parshat Terumah leaves us hanging on that paradox. The mishkan’s design, it says, comes from God. So, it’s beyond human creativity. But, people won’t know that until they use their own creativity. Hence: “Let them make me a holy place,” God says, “and I will dwell amidst them” (Ex. 25:8).
Parshat Terumah includes Exodus 25:1-27:19.