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Rebuilding the Tabernacle 




Parashat Terumah begins with the command to build a Tabernacle. God, commands Moses to instruct the people to build the Tabernacle so that God's Presence may dwell among the people. "Have them make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them." This verse from Exodus 25:8 appears to say that the purpose of the Tabernacle is to create a place for the indwelling of God among the people. The transcendent God who had as yet, only become accessible to the people through the overwhelming experience of Sinai- a vertical experience of the Divine- commands the people to build a horizontal space as a channel for His immanent presence. However, the text does not explicitly reveal WHY God initiates this new form of relationship.

he medieval commentators Rashi and Nachmanides each take a different view as to God's ultimate motivation for the construction of the Tabernacle. Their debate echoes and further elucidates the ancient Talmudic debate between the schools of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva regarding when the actual Tabernacle decrees were given.

We see that parashat Terumah comes immediately after the giving of the laws at Sinai, parashat Mishpatim. The blueprints for the structure and all its vessels are given but the Tabernacle is not erected until after the Golden Calf episode in parashat Ki Tissa which occurs many chapters later. 
The historic debate between the schools of R. Ishmael and R. Akiva- and later between Rashi and Ramban center on whether the Tabernacle decrees were given after the Golden Calf episode or before. Each point of view has specific theological implications.


Rashi contends that the building of a mishkan (Tabernacle) became a necessity only after the sin of the Golden Calf, because of the sin of the Calf.  One cannot separate the need for the mishkan from the Golden Calf episode. Although the descriptions of this building project are presented in the Torah prior to the narrative of the golden calf, Rashi resolves this difficulty by quoting the rabbinic principle established by the school of Rabbi Ishmael "there is no order of precedence or succession in the Torah- Ein mukdam u'm'uchar baTorah." Events in the Torah are not necessarily presented in chronological order. With that premise, Rashi proposes that God never intended for the people to worship through sacrificial service in the mishkan or even at the Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, God intended for each person to experience the presence of the Shekhinah directly, personally, as occurred at Mt. Sinai. There was to be no need for prescribed actions, for a sacrificial system, in a designated location. However, the sin of the golden calf expressed a human need to have a physical expression for a relationship with this divine non-physical being. The people were not able to make the paradigm leap from the concretized images of the divine in Egypt to this disembodied God of Heaven who turns nature upside down at will. Therefore, Rashi explains, God responded to their need by initiating the creation of a designated space with a prescribed service that would allow the people to express their spiritual needs. Both the service and the structure would provide form in the midst of the wilderness, order in the midst of chaos.


Maimonides takes up this line of thought as well in his Guide to the Perplexed by asserting that the people had become habituated to animal sacrifice as a method of worship. God recognizes this and provides a vehicle- the mishkan- for the people to redirect their need for sacrificial service toward God rather than toward idolatry. Maimonides states, "Here, God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because he feared they might meet on the way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object... to spread a knowledge of Him and cause them to reject idolatry." Following the sin of the golden calf, God redresses his original plan in order to accommodate for human weakness and the desire for animal sacrifice. The Tabernacle and later, the Temple  will serve this need while directing the people to the recognition of the One God. The mishkan and Temple will also serve as vehicles for expiation of sin, which was needed after the Golden Calf incident.


Whereas Rashi and Maimonides attach the significance of the mishkan to the Golden Calf, Nachmanides the kabbalist, argues along the lines of the school of R. Akiva,  that the essence of the Tabernacle was to extend the momentous experience of Sinai into a daily accessible experience. The mishkan, as described by Torah itself creates a place for the Shekhinah to dwell so that the relationship that had been established between the people and God at Mt. Sinai could continue to manifest. The presence of the Tabernacle within the Israelite camp was intended to literally bring down to earth a continuity of revelation and relationship experienced first on Mt. Sinai. The Tabernacle was meant to deepen the relationship between God and the people and should not be viewed as a remedy for spiritual failure and an addiction to animal sacrifice. It is for this reason that the directives to build the Tabernacle were given directly after the revelation at Sinai.


The 20th cent. Bible scholar Umberto Cassuto states similarly, "The nexus between Israel and the Tabernacle is a perpetual extension of the bond that was forged at Sinai between the people and their God. The children of Israel, dwelling in tribal order at every encampment, are able to see, from every side, the Tabernacle standing in the midst of their camp, and the visible presence of the sanctuary proves to them just as the glory of the Lord dwelt on Mt. Sinai, so he dwells in their midst wherever they wander in the wilderness."


Each view expresses different principles about the function of worship. The Maimonidian view explains worship in the Tabernacle within the historical and psychological context of the times. He sees it within an evolutionary process. Communal worship expresses the idea that organized, dedicated service to the One God can refocus the human tendency to fall into misguided forms of worship. Viewed through today's lens, we might say that the establishment of a sacred community, focused on the Divine Center of All, tempers and balances the needs of the ego. It stands as a buffer to the very human tendency to focus on the self, and elevate wealth and power as supreme objectives. A holy community functions as a grounding anchor, reminding us of our place in the web of life, in the society we wish to create and of our relationship with our Creator. Like the Israelite encampment around the Tabernacle, such a community puts God at the center and ideally this central focus may then be reflected in the relationships among the people.


Nachmanides/Ramban, the kabbalist, on the other hand, focuses on the relationship between the people and the Divine that serves both parties. Following in the footsteps  of the Akivan school, he describes a compassionate God who desires connection with the people. The mishkan serves as a conduit for attracting the presence of God and maintaining that relationship within the Israelite community. Sinai, the peak revelatory experience between God and the people took place once in the life of the nation. The Tabernacle expresses God's desire for an ongoing, portable relationship with an immanent God that travels with the people. It requires and demands dedication and maintenance by the people. Through the manipulation of the mundane world into a sacred space, a channel for the indwelling of the Divine is created.

Given the painful history of our people, Nachmanides' theology, and in fact much of the kabbalistic enterprise of his period, serves as a comfort to a persecuted people. The Shekhinah is always with us and accessible despite our travail. The mishkan and later the Temple express God's desire for an ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. Following the destruction of the 2nd Temple, this idea flourishes through countless midrashim that depict the Shekhinah accompanying the people into exile, weeping for them and longing for reunification.


Theology clearly changes with history as the emotional and spiritual needs of the people change through time. Similarly the function of sacred space and the nature of worship changes as well. What remains constant are the values of a community that recognizes God at the center- a community that places Harachamana- source of compassion and love at the center. 

Whether we follow Maimonides or Nachmanides, our sacred spaces are meant to magnify and channel this awareness so that we can create a truly exalted community. And yet our sacred spaces- our synagogues and churches are failing. They no longer adequately communicate the relevance of the sacred and no longer draw people to worship. I have frequently heard from youth and others that the theology they represent has become irrelevant to them. It behooves us to deeply explore and understand what people feel to be the pressing spiritual needs of our day. How might we begin to consider a theology that serves the spiritual needs of people today, of our children and grandchildren? I fear for what appears to be a growing cynicism that threatens the hearts of the next generation. 

And so I ask these three questions:

What are the spiritual needs of our day?
How does our theology need to change? And following this idea, how then might our worship need to change to express relevance and the urgency of our times?


Finally, let us look at the very first vessel that is described and decreed to be built, after the terumah- the donations are collected. This is the Aron Hakodesh- The Holy Ark (Ex.26:10-22). We might assume that the primacy of this command reveals something important about the mission of the mishkan. Atop the Holy Ark sit two cherubim, facing one another and according to the text, the space between the cherubim is the place from which God will  communicate through Moshe to the people.


Within the space that is created between these two individualities, lies the possibility for a holy conversation. Duality, implicit in the physical world and represented by the two cherubim, is bridged through relationship, through sacred communication in the empty space between them. Additionally, The Talmud relates that in the Temple the curtains around the Holy of Holies would be pulled back on the Holy Days and the Ark would be visible to the People. And what did the People see of the cherubim at these times? "They would be embracing one another [carnally] (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a)." Such an image expresses the holiness of two coming together as one.


Similarly, a sacred community must allow for the tension of polarities to exist in dynamic and loving relationship. Moreover, it should facilitate such encounters. Such a community creates a culture of inclusion but not sameness.  It encourages deep listening and creates the safety for honest sharing.


May we create a culture such as this among the Jewish people- a sense of expanded community that attracts our youth, our spiritual seekers, our marginalized, our disheartened- a culture that places the highest value on humility, compassion and justice, a community which therefore cannot help but be a magnet for the indwelling of the Divine.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabba Kaya


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