Terumah: The God of Yielding
As I was driving the other day, I was coming to a right turn where there was no light. As I made the turn, I passed the triangle-shaped “YIELD” sign. I knew I had to watch for oncoming traffic, meaning that I had to slow down and look over my shoulder for other travelers. I didn’t have to stop, mind you, just slow down, so that we can all be safe together. As I made the merge and drove all I kept thinking to myself that “YIELD” has become the hardest thing for anyone to do in modern life. It’s the one road sign in life that many of us ignore.
After years of divisive politics and social media, we have successfully corroded our sense of mutual destiny. In so many aspects of our lives we feel put-upon by forces beyond us. Whether they be work pressure or social pressure, life pulls us in many differing directions. Added to that are the tectonic forces of inequality, racism, bigotry and hatred that have shook the earth so violently that sometimes the greatest chasm in the world than between one human being and her fellow neighbor. And so many of us refuse to yield. Any giving up on our beliefs or opinions feels like a loss. We take offense when another person assets themselves passionately. It is as if we forgotten that yielding is part of being in community with each other. Slowing down without stopping, checking the oncoming thoughts of others, allows us all to merge into the flow of life. Yet at this moment, we ignore the road sign that says,“YIELD.”
How do we cross the chasm that lays between us?
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we find an answer. After the covenant at Sinai, the people are left to their own desires. They feel the painful distance that comes in the shadow of revelation. The Israelites, transformed by God’s Presence, are told to create a space for God at the center of their encampment. “Make for me a sacred dwelling place, that I may dwell among you.” (Exodus 25:8). It is here in this moment, that the Israelites yield for the first time. Until now, God’s role was one of transcendent redeemer, that rained plagues down on the Egyptians, split the sea, and came in fiery flash of Mount Sinai. The people are not with God, and God is not with people. They are on parallel but different tracks, begging the question that arises earlier in the text, when the people ask, “Is God present among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) Until now, the relationship between God and the people is that of absolutes -all or nothing.
That is why God’s commandment, “Make for me a sacred dwelling” is so important. For the first time, God wants to be in the midst of the people. I cannot underscore how radical that is. God is the Infinite, the Rock, the Ageless and the Absolute. Here God remembers the alienation that comes in holding on to absolutes. In many ways the moment of God’s desire to be amongst the people mirrors that of the opening moments of creation. The mystics teach that before there was a world, before there was day and night, before there were oceans trees and mountains there was only God. God retracted a tiny portion of the Holy Presence in order to make room for life to begin. This was called tzimtum, in the mystical works of kabbalah. Tzimtzum is the act of retraction, of yielding to allow other to flourish.
In the beginning of creation God yielding to allow life to spring forth. Here we find creation’s immaculate reflection. God, as it were, remembers the echo of creation, and here in the creation of a nation God makes a move that is no less radical than creation itself. God is asking the Israelites to yield and to make room for God among the people. God no longer wants to move on parallel tracks. God does not want subjects, God wants partners.
The Hasidic Master Netivot Shalom, internalizes the central commandment of Terumah. He writes, “In the commandment, Make for me a Sanctuary…” we find that it is incumbent upon every person since he/she is a small world unto themselves, and this commandment to draw oneself close to God. For it states that “And I will dwell with you” not, “in them” but “in you” that is, in each and everyone of you.” He teaches that there is a very fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. That line is defined by the ego. When we assert ourselves, our overriding sense of self into our version of what is right, we risk crowding out other people and their wisdom into our vision. The difference between righteous and self-righteous is our ego, our inability to “yield” to each other. Building a world where godliness is among us, begins with each of us. Just as God yielded at the beginning of the Torah, we must learn to make room for others in our life and our community. The Kotzker Rebbe, famously said, “Where does God live? Wherever we let God in.” It always begins with us.
In a world of utter fragmentation, when we feel so very apart from each other, we must do as God wants and create a space for holiness, beginning with the self. It is upon us to make ourselves holy, but seeing the holiness in other people, especially those who see the world differently. The Tosefta echoes this statement by saying, that in the face of diametrically opposing positions you must “make yourself a heart of many rooms” (Tosefta Sotah 7:12). A heart is a space within a space. It throbs for life. It is into this sacred chamber, this holy of holies, that we must wonder to meet each other, to find common ground, to do the act of sacred yielding, and build a world where God dwell. Each of us is a sanctuary, each of us is a partner that can draw forth the Divine and close the chasm that stands between us.