Parashat Termua: The Influence of Our Surroundings
Parashat Teruma introduces the obligation to construct the Mishkan, the precursor to the permanent Bet Ha’mikdash which would later be built in Jerusalem.
The Midrash Tanhuma makes a seemingly peculiar statement about the command to build the Mishkan, commenting about this command, "This is what is said, ‘I have loved you, said G-d…and I despised Esav’ (Malachi 1:2-3)." Somehow, the command to build the Mishkan expresses G-d’s special love for us over the gentile nations, as stated by the prophet Malachi. What is the connection between the Mishkan and G-d’s unique love for Am Yisrael?
The Kerem Shlomo (Rav Shlomo Halberstam of Bobov, 1908-2000) explains the Midrash’s comment based on an insight of the Or Ha’haim Ha’kadosh (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743). There is a famous tradition that before G-d gave our ancestors the Torah, He first offered it to other nations – Yishmael and Esav. After they rejected the offer, G-d brought it to Beneh Yisrael, who enthusiastically accepted it. The Or Ha’haim asks, if, indeed, G-d first offered the Torah to these nations, then how could He say, "I have loved you…and I despised Esav"? How was this love expressed, if G-d offered the Torah to Esav before offering it to us?
The Or Ha’haim answers that there was a fundamental difference between G-d’s offer of the Torah to Yishmael and Esav, and His offer of the Torah to our ancestors. When He offered the Torah to the other nations, He went to them, as it were, to their territory, and asked them if they wanted the Torah. But when the time came to offer the Torah to Am Yisrael, He brought Am Yisrael to Him at Mount Sinai. For this reason, the Or Ha’haim writes, G-d emphasizes to the people when He offered them the Torah, "Va’abi Etchem Elai" – "I have brought you to Me" (Shemot 19:4) – pointing out the difference between the way He offered the Torah to the other nations, and the way He offered it to Am Yisrael. This was how G-d’s love for Am Yisrael was expressed – through His bringing them to Him to offer them the Torah, rather than going to them.
The Kerem Shlomo explains the significance behind this difference. A person’s location has a profound impact upon his character. A place of impurity, where people routinely engage in improper behavior, will have a spiritually deleterious effect upon everyone in the area. Conversely, a place of Kedusha, where people involve themselves in Torah and Misvot, will positively influence everyone in the vicinity. Undoubtedly, the Kerem Shlomo writes, the territories of Yishmael and Esav had a negative impact. When G-d approached them in their territory to offer the Torah, it was all but certain that they would reject the offer, due to the spiritually toxic influence of the place. When offering the Torah to Am Yisrael, G-d brought them to the sacred site of Mount Sinai. The sanctity of the location strongly impacted them, and they immediately and enthusiastically accepted the Torah, proclaiming, "Na’aseh Ve’nishma" – "We will do and we will hear." G-d’s special love for Am Yisrael was manifest in the way He offered them the Torah – by bringing them to Mount Sinai, which all but guaranteed that they would accept the offer, in direct contrast to the other nations, who were offered the Torah in their territory, which all but guaranteed that they would reject it.
On this basis, the Kerem Shlomo explains the connection between G-d’s special love for Beneh Yisrael and the command to build a Mishkan. It is because we are so profoundly influenced by our surroundings that G-d commanded us to build a sacred site, a place where the divine presence would rest. The Mishkan, the site of intensive service of G-d, would impact the people, inspiring and uplifting them.
Living in a country with values that directly conflict with our cherished Torah values is going to affect us. As a small minority, we are threatened by the beliefs, value systems, and behavior of the people around us. This is why it is so vitally important for all of us to have a "Mishkan," to place ourselves in a proper religious environment where we receive positive influence to neutralize the effects of external influences. Each and every one of us must ensure to protect himself or herself from the pervasive influence of the surrounding culture by spending time in the "Mishkan," in synagogues and study halls, surrounding ourselves with likeminded committed Jews, so we can resist the influence of our society and live the lives of Torah devotion that we are supposed to live.