The Midrash to Proverbs opens with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where can wisdom be found? Where is the source of understanding?” (Job 28:12). In the Midrash, Rabbi Tanhum ben Hanilai suggests that these questions refer to King Solomon, who spent his life seeking wisdom. The midrash explains that God rewards Solomon, “Since you have asked for neither silver nor gold, but instead for wisdom, both ‘wisdom and knowledge are granted to you” (2 Chronicles 1:12). It doesn’t hurt that God continues, “I grant you also wealth, property, and glory” (ibid.).
Of course, a professor will endorse the pursuit of wisdom. I must also admit that gold and silver also have their uses. In fact, this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, extensively lists the uses that gold and silver serve in our service to God. When God asks for a free will offering from the Israelites, God is quick to specify a contribution to the building fund: gold, silver, brass, linens, fabrics of purple and scarlet, precious stones, and acacia wood (a renewable, green, building material, after all).
These costly gifts are specifically for the purpose of building the Mishkan, God’s portable sanctuary. It is essential for the Jewish community to have a central home which reminds them of their common endeavor, the covenant that binds them together with God. So, God tells Moses, “Make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
For 40 years, God indeed dwells with the Israelites during their journey in the wilderness. Centuries later, after their conquest of the Holy Land, God’s promise to Solomon also bears fruit. As this week’s Haftarah opens we learn, “God gave wisdom to Solomon as God had promised.” The result of this wisdom is, again, a sanctuary for God to dwell among the Jews. As the Haftarah sweetly puts it, “Solomon built a house for God.”
If gold and silver are the elements common between the portable sanctuary of the wilderness and the monumental Jerusalem temple which Solomon built, the initial question need be revisited. “Where can wisdom be found?” One might answer that Solomon’s wisdom was in taking what had been a temporary portable structure, the Mishkan, and making it a permanent structure through the addition of “bricks and mortar.” There is great wisdom in making permanent institutional structures to serve God. Solomon’s temple endured approximately 375 years. The second temple lasted almost six centuries.
Our modern Jewish community has built institutions galore to God’s glory. We have established many kinds of offerings in the service of the Lord. Gold, silver, stocks, and bonds are just a few items on the list of contributions that have been given as free will offerings by the Jews. Those gifts have served their purpose, and we might proudly say that God has dwelled among us, especially in the department of Jewish Studies and Hillel buildings!
Still, we should wonder whether we have been as wise as King Solomon. In order to build God’s house, Solomon first made peace with his neighbors. Further, to do the work of the Lord, Solomon united the fractious tribal confederation. In our own modern world, we build walls, but these too often are made to keep our neighbors out. We do not even attempt to unite the Jewish community, but instead build institutions which exclude women, gays and lesbians, inter-marrieds, to say the least of those who have different ideas about Zionism from one another. Sometimes it seems that the litmus test of our devotion is whom we exclude, whose kitchen we will not eat in, which synagogue we will not step foot in, or who we won’t let speak in our building.
This week’s Haftarah ends with God warning Solomon: “As for this house you are building, only if you follow My statutes, perform My judgments and observe My commandments will I keep My promise to you…to dwell among the Israelites, and not forsake My people Israel.”
We may disagree about how to observe God’s commandments, but one thing is clear: so long as we continue to exclude members of the Jewish community – so long as we build walls of separation rather than bridges of peace with our neighbors – our institutions will be bereft of God’s Holy presence. This week’s Torah portion reminds us to build a sanctuary so that God might dwell among all of us.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary