Parashat Terumah: Putting up walls

Sometimes barriers are needed, but when it comes to the Jewish people free-flowing open spaces are required.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IF THE President of the United States has his way, construction companies are going to have a field day with contracts to build thousands of miles of a border wall up for grabs. In addition to physical walls, he hopes to build economic walls as he renegotiates trade deals, some of which have been in place for decades.
While there are times when they may be needed, walls – whether in one’s home or along the border – create distance, dividing one area from another.
In ancient times, walls were a symbol of power and honor. Moses specifically asked those sent to scout the land to report on whether the cities were walled or not (Num.13:19). The Purim story, or Megillah, is read on the 14th of Adar unless one lives in a walled city, distinguishing between the more and less important cities. As the Jews of Shushan, a walled city, celebrated a day later than the Jews in the rest of the Persian Empire, those living in a walled city today celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar.
Yet strangely, any city that had a wall around it in the time of Joshua’s conquest of Israel also reads the Megillah and celebrates Purim on the 15th. Considering that the story of Purim took place some 900 years after Joshua’s conquest, this seems like rather peculiar dating. The Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 1:1) explains this was done “in order to give honor to the Land of Israel.”
At the time of Purim, Jerusalem lay in ruins, something our tradition preferred to acknowledge on the Ninth of Av, not Purim. It was the Jerusalem of those who dreamed of returning to Zion, with all its glory, beauty and strength, that we celebrate on Purim.
However, much like a sabra fruit, Jerusalem is to be strong on the outside but sweet inside. While walls may have surrounded and protected Jerusalem, the Temple stood as the focal point inside; its forerunner the Sanctuary, or mishkan, is the (only) subject of this week’s Torah reading, Terumah. Instead of walls, the focus was on curtains – movable, flexible and easily passable. Even those areas that were restricted to the priests had no walls blocking access. There was a mere curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, which was open only one day a year and only for the High Priest.
The Temple is the place that must unify the people, so walls were kept to a minimum.
It is where Jews gathered to celebrate the holidays, remembering our shared history and meeting other Jews from all walks of life. The main area of the Temple was an open courtyard where all could gather.
While only priests were permitted to perform the actual Temple service, with rare exceptions, the priests spent no more than three days a year performing their Temple duties. The rest of the year they served as civil servants and were the primary teachers of the people.
In keeping with the mission of Aaron, the founding father of the priesthood, the priests were “the lovers of peace and the seekers of peace” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12). It is instructive that our Sages teach that we should all be students not of Moses our Teacher, but of Aaron.
It was not only barriers between Jews that the Temple was meant to tear down. “For My house is a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isaiah 56:7). Jerusalem is the city of peace only if there is peace throughout the world, and all who seek to come closer to God and man are welcome.
As much as we may associate the Sanctuary with sacrifices, the Torah places the commandment to build it not in the book of Leviticus, which deals with sacrifices, but in the book of Exodus, on the heels of the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. It follows immediately after a long list of civil laws, teaching that one cannot build a Sanctuary for the Divine Presence if there is strife among men.
Sitting next door to the Temple was the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, highlighting the link between justice and the service of God. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, notes that the mitzvot of setting up the court system and building the Sanctuary were given on the same day, the day after the very first Yom Kippur (Ex. 18:13 and Ex. 35:1).
Spending a day in prayer and fasting must be followed by the resolution of conflicts between people. This has been the challenge facing the Jewish people for the last 2,000 years. Now that we have returned to our ancient homeland the stakes are much higher. Are we up to the challenge?
Rabbi Jay Kelman, CPA, CA, is the director of Torah in Motion, an adult education institute based in Toronto, Canada.