Torah Portion of the Week: A Dwelling for God

Parashat Terumah: 'And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.' God needs more than a house to live in; he needs a nation in whose midst he can dwell.

A close up of text in a a Torah scroll.
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For nearly two millennia, Judaism has functioned as a religion without a temple, although the early Israelite religion, like other religions in antiquity and like some religions today, included intensive and extensive temple rituals. Just as the initial verses of Genesis describe how the world started, its source and purpose, so the Torah’s chapters on the traveling Tabernacle depict when, how and why the first Temple was constructed.

I am not referring to the exquisite Temple built in Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C.E., in the days of King Solomon, which was destroyed in the sixth century B.C.E.: That temple is described in the Book of Kings. What the Torah depicts is the portable temple that was constructed in the desert during the era of Moses, when the Hebrew people started out as a nation. That temple is referred to as the Tabernacle (mishkan, in Hebrew) or tent of meeting (ohel mo’ed); the Temple in Jerusalem is its replication and reconstruction.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes that, whereas the Torah devotes only 31 verses to Creation, “for the tabernacle, a cabin along whose length stand 20 columns and along whose width stand eight columns the Torah devotes 300 to 400 verses.” Why? “Because the world and all it contains is irrelevant for the status of mortals before God, while the Tabernacle expresses divine worship” (from Leibowitz’s “Conversations on Faith and Philosophy, with Aviezer Ravitzky” [in Hebrew]).

The first claim is debatable: The fact that the Torah nonetheless describes the process of Creation does indicate its religious relevance. However, Leibowitz’s second claim is certainly correct: At least in this week’s portion, Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), the Tabernacle is the central expression of divine worship. Terumah is the first segment in the lengthy textual sequence depicting the Tabernacle’s construction. Except for a small deviation (in one part of Parashat Ki Tissa, to be read in the synagogue two weeks from tomorrow), the sequence continues until the end of Exodus, even spilling into Leviticus.

Parashat Terumah opens with instructions for the establishment of a project whose implementation will be mass funded: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take my offering’” (Exodus 25:1-2). The Torah then proceeds to describe the master plan for the temple’s construction and the fashioning of its contents: the ark, ark-cover and cherubim; the table, its vessels and utensils; the menorah; the curtains and boards; the veil; the altar and courtyard. Regarding each item inside the Tabernacle, God gives detailed instructions, followed by a practical commandment defining the item’s function.

What is the role of this project? What purpose is the Tabernacle to serve? At the end of the first section of instructions, God provides a concise answer: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8). The Tabernacle will serve God: “And let them make me a sanctuary.” Like all mortals and all gods, the God of Israel needs a home. The end of this verse, however, is surprising: Instead of saying “that I may dwell in it,” it reads, “that I may dwell among them.” God needs more than a house to live in; he needs a nation in whose midst he can dwell. Through residence in the Tabernacle, he will also dwell among the Children of Israel.

Although the nation will benefit from God’s residence in its midst, the text emphasizes that the initiative for the Tabernacle’s construction is God’s, not Israel’s. Here the Tabernacle’s depiction differs from that of Solomon’s Temple. According to the Book of Kings, the initiative for the Temple’s construction comes from Solomon, after David’s request (in the Book of Samuel) for God’s permission to build the Temple is denied. In Parashat Terumah, however, the temple project is God’s idea. Furthermore, God gives Moses precise, detailed instructions for creating it and its contents: “According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it” (Exod. 25:9).

In the inauguration ceremonies of Jerusalem’s Temple, Solomon wonders how God, King of the Universe, could reduce his dimensions sufficiently in order to dwell in that house: “But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). No such thoughts are expressed in the chapters concerning the Tabernacle’s construction. Although it is not called “God’s house,” a popular term elsewhere in the Bible, the root of the Hebrew word or it, mishkan, is shin-kaf-nun – which means “reside.” In its design and content, the Tabernacle resembles other temples Israel encounters in its surroundings – pagan temples designed to be the House of God.

All homes require lighting, thus the Tabernacle is illuminated by a golden candelabra (menorah). It also contains a gold-plated wooden table as well as its “dishes,” “pans,” “jars” and “bowls” (Exod. 25:29). The table has a function: “And thou shalt set upon the table showbread before me always” (Exod. 25:30). The menorah and table are located in the Tabernacle’s largest section, called hakodesh (“the holy place”), which also contains a small gold-plated wooden altar, on which the incense is placed (as described in next week’s reading, Parashat Tetzaveh). The objects in the Tabernacle thus serve the basic needs of any home, providing light, food and a pleasant fragrance.

The internal chamber, the holy of holies, which is separated from the external chamber by a veil, contains the ark of the testimony, gold-plated “within and without” (Exod. 25:11), apparently symbolizing God’s presence. Atop the ark is the pure gold ark cover, atop of which are two cherubim, gold-plated figures whose wings spread over the ark. In this internal space, God encounters Moses: “And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony” (Exod. 25:22). Thus, the tabernacle is also called the tent of meeting.

The Israelite, and subsequently the Jewish, religion had a temple (sometimes more than one) for 1,000 years but, for the past 2,000 years, Judaism has existed without one. If Parashat Terumah is analogous to the story of Creation, it is the story of the creation of a world that is no more. This world does, however, continue to exist in the story itself. Although the Temple is no more, when we read this Torah portion, with its elaborate details, awe of holiness and gold-plated wood objects – it is as if we're entering the Temple’s gates. Unlike the temple, about which we read “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place” (Leviticus 16:2) and “the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), everyone has unrestricted access to the text describing the very first temple.