Our Bodies as Divine Vessels

Feb 7, 2022
by admin / LNCLN

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is concerned primarily with detailed instructions for the construction of various furniture and implements inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Isralites will carry with them during their journeys in the wilderness. Before these instructions begin, the parsha opens with a concise and powerful articulation of the point of all this painstaking work:


“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you do.” Exodus 25:8-9


A straightforward reading of the text already presents us with a beautiful and theologically startling idea: the people will build an elaborate tent, and Gd will come to dwell there. The sacred space that the people are creating will be, culturally and spiritually and also literally physically at the center of the camp, and the Gd of the whole universe will somehow come to be there, living in the midst of the people. But there is another - equally beautiful and theologically provocative,and perhaps especially useful to us today - thread of interpretation of this verse which I want to  share with you today.


The Talmud in Sanhedrin comments that the seemingly unnecessary emphatic at the end of our verses “so shall you do" is there to tell us that “so you shall do in future generations.” Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin apparently finds this very upsetting.  If God issued a commandment to build a Tabernacle through all generations, why don’t we do it?! he asks. And if the explanation is that it is impossible to carry out, then why does God tell us to do something impossible?! Or why does God not change our circumstances to make it possible?! Reb Chaim solves his problem by reading closely in the verse “that I may dwell within them” and understanding it to mean not within the Israelite community collectively but literally within the physical body of each and every individual Jew throughout the generations.


In this reading, the mitzvah to construct a Tabernacle becomes a personal imperative. Every one of our bodies is to become a living tabernacle in miniature. God rests the Shechina, the Divine Presence, inside each human being, specifically inside each human body. In the words of the Shlah, interpreting in a similar vein “We have stated that just as the Tabernacle serves to assure us of the Presence of Gd's Shechinah in our midst, so a person's physical stature is meant to be the receptacle for Gd's Presence within them.” In this worldview, the goal of the human body is to be a holding space for holiness. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov points out that the way in which this happens, in our parsha, is through acts of giving. Generosity, he says, opens the heart and makes it a place where Gd can live.


It’s February, and I am fat and female, so this means my online media is feeding my brain a steady diet of diet ads, gym membership drives, and someone’s nutritional supplement scheme. Maybe you’ve noticed it, too. These ads and notifications serve as near-constant reminders of something that is true year round: that we live in a society with a very different view about the purpose of human bodies, one which sees the goal of our bodies as being as sexual enticing  and as profitable as possible.


Our parsha gives us the opportunity to ask: What if we saw our bodies as primarily a structure meant to make room in the world for Gd?  What would it look like for each of us to truly internalize that our own body and the body of all those with whom we interact is no more and no less than a vessel that contains the Divine and brings holiness into our communities? If we could really believe that, how would that change our relationship to our bodies, to Gd, to others, and to the world around us? And what work do we need to do to get there?