As we have explained previously, God created this physical world in order to make it His home. This goal was achieved for an elusive moment when the world was first created, but the miscalculations and wrongdoings of the early generations of mankind forced the Divine presence to progressively retreat into increasingly distant spiritual realms. The reversal of this process was begun by Abraham, continued through the chain of his successors, and was consummated by his seventh-generation descendant, Moses.

The first bona fide stage of Moses' reinstatement of God's presence here on earth was the Splitting of the Sea, which was described in parashat Beshalach. For as long as the sea remained divided, the physical world was host to an awareness and consciousness it had not experienced since the primordial Garden of Eden: that of God's existence and presence being readily perceptible and obvious. This consciousness in turn made the existence of this physical world—normally self-evident and beyond question—appear as it truly is, dependent and subordinate to the Divine life force pulsing within it.

But this transcendent experience was as fleeting as it was exalted; as soon as the sea returned to its natural state, "normative" consciousness returned. All that was left was the memory of the miracle, whose imprint on human consciousness paved the way for the steps to follow.

Once the sea had been split and it had been shown that Divine consciousness can indeed penetrate the entire order of creation down to this physical world, the next stages of this process could occur, namely, the demonstration that God's presence can penetrate even further, into the realms of reality that are antagonistic to and even deny Divinity, imparting Divine consciousness even to them. This was accomplished by the conversion of Jethro, the idolatrous priest par excellence.

The Torah could at last be given to humanity. In giving the Torah, God gave mankind His instructions how to turn this world into His home on an ongoing basis. But even more importantly, He made Himself—His essence—part of the Jewish soul and psyche. The Jewish people, individually and collectively, became the walking presence of God on earth, a type of being irrevocably obsessed with Godliness and its implications for the world. This is why the laws of conversion to Judaism are deduced from the process through which God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai; it was there that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were transformed—in a quantum leap—into the Jewish people.

These two events are recounted in parashat Yitro.

However, radical as the giving of the Torah was, it still did not complete the full restoration of God's presence on earth. This is because it was essentially an act of God's initiative: "And God descended on Mount Sinai."1 True, there was a certain advantage to this: the revelation, not being dependent upon the world's prior preparation to receive it, was able to affect all aspects of reality equally. As our sages say, "no bird chirped, no ox lowed…"2 All of creation was overwhelmed and absorbed by the awesomeness of the event.

On the other hand, because the revelation was initiated entirely by God, it could not endure; it could not be integrated and incorporated into the fabric of reality. "And Mount Sinai was totally aflame"—Divinity permeated and sanctified even the inanimate rocks of Sinai, and "they couldn't touch it," but "when the shofar sounds they will [again be allowed to] ascend the mountain"3—once the revelation was over, the mountain returned to its prior profane state, as if nothing had happened.

It was therefore necessary, after the Torah had been given, for the Jewish people to make their own contribution to the return of God's presence to earth. True, the revelation this would elicit would not permeate all of reality—since only those aspects of reality participating in the effort would be affected, and the level of Divine consciousness elicited would be only relative to the efforts expended in achieving it. Furthermore, it would have to be a gradual process. Reality would have to be elevated little by little, both qualitatively and quantitatively. But whatever would be affected would be affected permanently. Suitably prepared for and participating in the process, the people and elements involved would be able to sustain and retain their hard-earned Divine consciousness.

The first stage of this process occurred on the mental, abstract level; this is the significance of parashat Mishpatim. Largely made up of legislation that human intellect could have composed on its own, this section imparts the lesson that Divinity can and must inform and motivate our efforts to create and maintain a just society. The execution of law is a painstaking process, in which every issue that comes up must be analyzed and sorted out in order that the Divine principles of justice and mercy be properly applied, thus gradually refining the world and raising its level of Divine consciousness.

In parashat Terumah, the Jewish people's contribution to the return of God's presence on earth takes place on the physical, concrete level, in the construction of the Tabernacle. "They shall make Me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell in their midst."4 In the Tabernacle, God finally finds a permanent home in the physical world, and through it, a home in each and every individual. As our sages say, "He did not say 'I will dwell in it' but 'I will dwell in them.' "5 The presence of the Tabernacle cemented Divine consciousness into the life of the people, both as a nation and as individuals.

Terumah means "donation," literally, "a portion set aside" or "a portion lifted out" of one's possessions. The parashah opens with God's command to the people to donate materials for the construction of the Tabernacle, each according to his or her own generosity. A donation is, in a way, a paradox: by giving something away, we are saying—tacitly, at least—that this part of our wealth is better spent on the charitable cause than on our own affairs. We are in effect "admitting" that we are less worthy of our wealth than the individual or cause to which we are contributing. On the other hand, this way of thinking cannot be followed to its logical but one-sided conclusion, for then we would give away everything. By giving away only a portion of our wealth, we are at the same time acknowledging our own right to our wealth and asserting our own right to exist. But—back to the first hand—the fact that we have given some of our wealth away implies that our own private life is not the end-all and be-all of existence.

The result, then, is that even while retaining our sense of self, our donating makes the rest of our non-donated life subordinate to the higher cause. Even though we retain the better part of our own wealth and life, the very fact we have given some of it away to a worthy cause reflects our selflessness and transforms the remainder of our wealth into an expression of this same selflessness. The more we donate, the more this becomes true.

In simple, practical terms, when we donate to holy causes, this very fact turns our business or profession into a means to enable more contributions; our whole life, down to its most mundane aspects, becomes consecrated to the cause and part of the cause—whether or not we are conscious of this.

Donating is therefore a process of gradual refinement: the more we donate, the more we refine the rest of our lives. We continue to donate because our awareness of the importance of the cause increases. This increasing awareness is reflected in our increasing selflessness. Ultimately, our whole life is transformed into selfless devotion to bettering and elevating the world; we have thus refined our portion of the world from its a priori selfishness to Divine consciousness.

Thus, in contrast to the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which effected a complete but ephemeral nullification of the worldliness of this world, contributing towards building the Tabernacle effects the gradual but permanent refinement of creation.

This is why God's command to contribute to building the Tabernacle precedes even His command to build it, and this is why this parashah is called Terumah: it is specifically in the process of donating to the construction of the Tabernacle that the essential nature and purpose of the Tabernacle—the concretization of the Divine presence in earthly reality as accomplished by human efforts—is most fully expressed.

This also explains why the Torah describes the people's contributions in detail: what they are to bring, how much, and so on. Every detail of the process of refining the world is a separate story, and each element of the process is significant in that it effects an elevation of the world in a way that no other element does.

Finally, this explains why the Tabernacle was constructed in the desert. As opposed to settled areas, which already (hopefully) have undergone something of the process of civilization—i.e., of being made into settings where humanity can most optimally fulfill its destiny in making the world a home for God—the desert not has yet undergone such a process. It is "raw material," devoid of any human settlement that could serve as a means by which the Divine presence could "settle" on earth. Spiritually, therefore, it is an expression of those realms of life and creation that are as yet devoid of any Divine consciousness.

It is here, in the desert-areas of our lives, that God commands us to build Him a sanctuary. Even when we feel alienated from and empty of Divinity and despair of leaving our existential wasteland to enter the Promised Land, we must remember that God's command to make Him a sanctuary that He might dwell in it was first given—and fulfilled!—in the desert.

Moreover, the desert also signifies the dimension of spirituality that transcends the civilized, settled world. For although God seeks to dwell here below, this does not mean that He wishes to limit and contract Himself into the context of creation. Rather, it means, paradoxically, that He wants His essence—which by definition transcends any creational context—to be felt in creation. He wants the "super-desert"—the consciousness of Him as being far, far beyond any possible conception we can have of Him—to be brought "home." By making a dwelling for God in the lower desert, the aspects of our lives that appear to be anything but conducive to Divine consciousness, we cause this very darkness to shine; we tap into the side of God that "shouldn't" be able to be revealed in the finite world.

Therefore, even after the Jewish people had settled in their land and built the permanent sanctuary, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Tabernacle was not dismantled; it was stored away in the subterranean chambers of the Temple Mount, where it exists to this day. The Tabernacle and the lessons it embodies are everlasting—a permanent part of our lives and an integral, eternally relevant facet of our relationship with God.6