Terumah: Did God Create Humans or Did Humans Create God?

Terumah: Did God Create Humans or Did Humans Create God?

Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco of Adam and God reaching out to one another, illustrating a post about Parshat Terumah called "Did God create humans or did humans create God?"“Did God create humans or did humans create God?”

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.

  1. Perhaps Creation and Awareness occur simultaneously.
    The Everpresent Ain Sof is first conceptualized by a conscious perceptive growing awareness in the mind of human.

    1. Thanks, Randall! Along these lines, I like that Michaelangelo’s painting shows God and Adam reaching out to one another!

  2. >>>
    Perhaps Creation and Awareness occur simultaneously.
    The Everpresent Ain Sof is first conceptualized by a conscious perceptive growing awareness in the mind of human.

    On the contrary, they are _not_ simultaneous:

    . . . First, He created us, in His image.

    . . . Then, we created Him, in our image.

    Poetry (the language of theology, according to Art Green) is wonderful, eh?

    . Charles

    1. Charles, I love the implication that metaphysical reality may be absolutely nothing like we imagine it to be. Probably ALL the great philosophical positions are wrong. – Laura

      1. Seems to me that all philosophical positions may be incomplete, rather than wrong. Partially true perhaps? We human beings may be created in G*d’s
        Image, but we are not G*d/Shechinah,
        whatever Name we give the Divine. So our understanding is incomplete.

        1. Yes, that’s a great reflection. It suggests to me that a concept is like a picture or a net. It says something, but not everything. – Laura

  3. Terumah raises a different question for me, one which I addressed a bit in today’s Torah service.

    I have been perplexed by this parsha for years. My question is why? Why? Why would God want a physical, constructed home? God does not need a Sanctuary, for God is at home everywhere.

    Psalm 139
    Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
    If I go up to the heavens
    You are there.
    If I make my bed in the depths,
    You are there.

    This was the question I searched for guidance in answering before today’s service. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helped me out.

    The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us. Up until this point, God had provided everything and in response, the Israelites often kvetched. The building of the Mishkan was an important developmental step in the maturation of a people. This was the 1st time the people experienced the joy of creating and of giving. It was time to move on from just being passive (and kvetchy) recipients.

    Shavuah Tov

    1. Thanks, Leora.

      This is a beautiful interpretation. Communally creating something portable and beautiful, made by the people for the people, is a powerful contrast with the former slaves’ experience of building brick storage cities for Pharaoh.

      But I do take issue with Lord Sacks’ very traditional, very pious interpretation. Has God really provided everything? What about during those 430/215/190 or whatever they were years of slavery? Or the Israelites eating of the 600,000 sheep they traveled with? (Manna seems like garnish.) Or Miriam finding the water (midrash, but still)? Or God telling Moses to stop relying on God and get the people to travel?

  4. Thanks to Leora & Laura. Two thoughts: 1. To elaborate on Rabbi Sachs, when the Israelites worked together to make the Mishkan, they not only healed, but started to bond as a people for a holy purpose. The Mishkan came to be their traveling sanctuary and a reminder that G-d was with them on their (our) journey. 2. I forget who said it, but the building of a holy sanctuary, the Mishkan, can be a metaphor for creating a holy “place” within our own being, in our heart/soul, a place where we can find the holy within us.

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