Parshat Terumah: The main sanctuary


By Rabbi Avi Billet

Issue of Feb. 27, 2009 / 3 Adar 5769

Parshat Terumah always begs the question: If the instructions for the Mishkan (Tabernacle/Sanctuary) were only for the single time and place of the wilderness, why are we given all of the details in the Torah? There were surely many commands given to the Israelite generation in the wilderness which were only relevant to that time, which we do not hear about. Why not just tell us what was built, so we get a general idea of the structure? Why do we need all the details?

There are verses that indicate that Moshe did not even understand the instructions completely until he was shown a fiery image of specific items. As these diagrams are not included in the text of our Torahs, how could the instructions be any more helpful to us, who do not share Moshe’s status as a scholar, teacher and communicator with G-d?

“The Sanctuary and its ritual occupy so large a place both in the Torah and in the life of ancient Israel, because they formed part of the Divine scheme in moulding [sic] the Chosen People for its spiritual mission. The Sanctuary reinforced the laws which Moses had been commanded to set before the Children of Israel. It kept before them the thought that G-d was in their midst; and their life, individually and collectively, had to be influenced by that knowledge. As G-d was holy and as the Sanctuary was holy, so must the Israelites make the sanctification of their lives the aim of all their endeavours [sic]. The Sanctuary thus embodies the principle which is the central thought of the whole of the Divine revelation to Moses.”

Thus writes Rabbi J. Hertz, in the introduction to this Torah portion on page 325 of his edition of the Pentateuch.

While we do not have a Mishkan or a Mikdash, we have a “mikdash me’at” — a lower level sanctuary — called the synagogue. Some call it a Shul, some call it a Temple, but no matter its name, its mantra is to be a place where Jews gather to sanctify G-d’s name.

It should be a place upon which G-d can gaze and feel “this is a holy place, a place where I feel comfortable.”

The similarities of these edifices evoke images of the original Mishkan. There is an “aron” — the ark which contains the Torahs, a “shulchan” — a table, and a “menorah” — sometimes it is for Chanukah, and sometimes it reminds us of the seven-branched menorah of the mishkan, even if it is not symmetrical.

While the walls are not visibly made of beams, there are no animal skin coverings as roofs and we certainly appreciate the heating and air conditioning systems in their proper seasons, the decorative nature of stained glass windows and other ornamental displays brings to the eye a certain beauty which is not found in one’s home.

There is no mizbe’ach — altar — but perhaps we can take the idiom of the Rama (Orach Chaim 167:5), which is learned from Ezekiel 41:22 and elaborated upon in the Talmud (Brachot 55a): “A table is like a mizbe’ach” to suggest, as the Rashbetz does in Avot 3:4, that this refers to a table upon which “Torah words were spoken in public.”

I am aware that the context of this last statement usually refers to a table at which people dine and share Torah words, but the table in a shul is also a place from which Torah words emanate. So perhaps it serves a dual function, as the table and as the altar.

Like the sanctuary of old, we put much emphasis on the details of the shul. Tables, chairs, pews, which direction, where the rabbi sits, what ornamentation goes on the Torah, where the chazzan stands, wood, Jerusalem stone, paint, windows, what kind of lighting. Maybe the details of the Mishkan are shared with us to let us know that details are important when one considers how one will present oneself to G-d.

Every time we enter the synagogue to fulfill our religious obligations, we have a tremendous opportunity. We can sanctify the building, ourselves, and our relationship with G-d. We can turn an edifice of steel, wood and drywall into a holy place, as it becomes our “Mikdash.”

We easily do this through the recitation of the Kaddish, the Kedusha, and the Kiddush on Shabbat. But with the right attitude, and with increased awareness and devotion, we can do it all the time.

Then, despite not being in the Sinai wilderness, nor in rebuilt Jerusalem, we can still fulfill what Rabbi Hertz referred to as our “spiritual mission” –– namely, the verse “You will make for me a Sanctuary (Mikdash), and I will dwell amongst them” (25:8).

Avi Billet welcomes your comments and thoughts at avbillet at