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Compulsory Love: What the Building of the Tabernacle Can Teach Us About Valentine's Day (Parshat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19)

02/18/2015 11:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

I have a fraught relationship with Valentine's Day. Perhaps this is because I cringe, as a Jew, at observing what was first a pagan and later a Christian holiday -- Valentine's Day originated from a pagan mid-February fertility celebration called Lupercalia and was transformed into St. Valentine's Day by Pope Gelasius. Perhaps it is because of the consumerism that permeates Valentine's Day, which might as well be sponsored by Hallmark and 1-800-FLOWERS. But I think the main reason I resist it is that I reject the very premise of the holiday: choosing an arbitrary time for the compulsory enunciation and celebration of love. After all, do I love my spouse, my mother, and other family members any more on February 14 than I do the other days of the year? Why should society tell me that I need to express that love on a particular day?

This notion of compulsory expressions of love appears to surface, too, in this week's Torah reading. Parshat Terumah is the start of a lengthy depiction of the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that would serve the wandering Israelites as the locus of communication with and worship of God. The Torah reading begins with God saying to Moses in Exodus 25:2: "Tell the Israelites to take gift-offerings for Me; from everyone whose heart is generous, take My gifts."

A cognitive dissonance emerges from this initial instruction. In the first half of the sentence, God is compelling the Israelites to bring offerings (or, as some biblical commentators interpret, compelling the Israelites' leaders or tax enforcers to extract them from a potentially unwilling populace). Simultaneously, in the second half of the sentence, God is contradicting the compulsory nature of these offerings by saying the people should give only voluntarily, as their hearts move them. As the 11th-century biblical commentator Rashi explains, this mandatory-voluntary tension becomes even more acute when closely examining the categories of gifts mandated in Exodus 25:3-7: Some of the silver donations for the tabernacle were mandatory, with each individual obligated to provide a half-shekel, whereas the contribution of additional silver and all other materials, from precious metals to dyed rams' skins to oil, were discretionary.

Why is there this tension between compulsory and voluntary expressions of the heart?

Why can't God just let the Israelites donate whatever they want? Why inject a mandatory component into a voluntary outpouring of generosity?

One answer has to do with the nature of the divine-human relationship God was trying to effectuate through the construction of the tabernacle. A clue to this relationship lies in the very next verse: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." The fact that the text says "among them," and not "in it," reveals that God is more concerned with the relationships the tabernacle's construction will build between God and the Israelites than the reality of the construction itself. As the Malbim, a 19th-century commentator, writes: "God commanded that each individual should build God a sanctuary in the recesses of one's heart, that one should prepare oneself to be a dwelling place for the Lord and a stronghold for the excellency of God's Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of one's soul to the Lord, until one gives oneself for God's glory at all times."

The physical mishkan, whose construction necessitated the provision of these valuable goods, was then a metaphor for the kind of immanent presence God aspired to cultivate amongst the people. Perhaps the clearest expression of this idea can be found in Exodus Rabbah (a collection of rabbinic commentaries on Exodus likely compiled in the 9th-11th centuries). One midrash or interpretation there offers an alternative reading to Parshat Terumah's opening words "take for Me an offering," rereading the verse to say "take Me as an offering." It states: "Ordinarily, when one buys an article in the marketplace, is he then able to acquire its owner, too? But the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah to Israel and said to them: 'You are taking Me, as it were!' Hence, 'that they take me as an offering.'" (Exodus Rabbah 33:6). According to this midrash, God yearns not for an elaborate building but for a deep relationship with God's people.

These rabbinic readings of Terumah help us to personalize the gift giving described in Exodus 25, and to make its message of the potential of divine immanence relevant and resonant in our times. But in so doing, they also address, implicitly, the tension between compulsory and voluntary expressions of love. Perhaps the ambiguity in the text is intentional. Perhaps the Torah portion is teaching, by blurring these lines, that we need social conventions to frame and concretize our voluntary, loving relationships.

We can see this clearly in the distinction between dating and marriage. Two people surely can be in love with one another in a non-marital relationship. But there is a different valence in a relationship that involves the social construct of marriage. The oaths two people take to marry clarify that they not only love one another in the present but are committed to mutual responsibility for the other's well being and for maintaining that loving, monogamous relationship permanently. The symbolism of this concretization of love is profound. Indeed, that's why so many are fighting for marriage equality today.

Neither we nor our ancestors live in a world of abstraction. God knew that the Israelites needed a tangible way to access God, a way for that divine love to be received and for love of the divine to be expressed. Gift giving, and the construction of the mishkan as a whole, provided those ritual and literal structures. Even God needed a convention -- the "brit" or covenant God enters into with the Israelites -- to express God's love.

Maybe it is time for me to look past my understandable aversion to Valentine's Day. Maybe next year I will view it not merely as alien or artifice, but as a structured opportunity, a useful convention, through which to express my love.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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