Parashat Teruma: A religion on the move

Unlike most religions and neo-platonic philosophies, our God does not dwell in the exalted heavens.

The first sacred building mentioned in the Bible is the sanctuary or tabernacle, the mishkan, as the text of this week's portion commands: "They shall make [ve'asu] for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:8). And almost immediately following, "they shall make [ve'asu] an ark…" (Ibid. 25:10). Isn't it strange that with regard to all other sanctuary accoutrements, the Bible commands "you shall cover… you shall make… you shall pour… you shall place… you shall bring" - each in the second person singular (ve'asita), and all addressed to Moses, while the command to construct the tabernacle and the ark are in the third person plural, "they shall make." Why? My second question likewise refers to the ark, repository of the sacred stone tablets. "And you shall bring poles through the rings on the side of the ark, in order to carry [lift, bear, move] the ark by means of them. The poles shall remain through the rings of the ark; they must not be removed from them" (Exodus 25:15). I understand that at this time in Jewish history, when the nation was moving from encampment to encampment in the desert, it was crucial for the sanctuary in general and the holy ark in particular to be mobile. However, the goal was to reach our place of "inheritance and rest," where we would hopefully stay put; and where the ark and its contents were to remain stationary, fixed and eternal, not subject to changes or movements either geographically or ideologically. As Shammai declares (Mishna Avot 1, 15): "Make your Torah fixed, steady, unwavering and unmoving." So why are the poles to remain within the rings of the Ark "forever"? In the answer to these two questions lies the most fundamental path-breaking message of Judaism: The purpose of the sanctuary is to bring the sanctity of the divine (mikdash) to the nation Israel, and the purpose of the tabernacle is to bring the presence of the divine (mishkan) to the corporate body Israel. Unlike most religions and neo-platonic philosophies, our God does not dwell in the exalted heavens, beckoning His children to escape from the physical world and their bodily "prisons" to reach His place of splendid isolation. The very opposite is true: God commands us to bring Him down to Earth, to create (or rather re-create) an earthly environment in which He can comfortably dwell, to utilize His laws of compassionate righteousness and justice as a means to bless all the nations (Genesis 18:18,19). Indeed, our rabbis of the Midrash maintain that before Abraham, God was known as the God of the heavens, whereas after Abraham, God was known as the "God of the heavens and the Earth" (Genesis 24:2, 3 and Midrash ad loc.). Hence, God tells Moses again and again that he must "go down" from the high mountains and the supernal heavens in order to give over the divine Revelation (Exodus 19:21-25), and the Israelites must make a sanctuary so that God will be able to dwell in the midst of the nation. Ultimately, through Israel the entire planet must become a sanctuary for God's presence - a place where that presence will be suffused in every aspect of life (Genesis 12:3, Exodus 19:6, Isaiah 43:10, Micah 4). And since our religion is not merely about individuals reaching up to God but rather of a nation bringing God down to Earth, the sanctuary must be made by the whole nation, va'asu. As with the sanctuary, so it is with the holy ark, repository of the divine Revelation. The Midrash teaches that there are three crowns: the crown of kingship is the table of the showbread, the crown for priesthood is the altar, and the crown of Torah is the ark; the one who acquires the crown of Torah likewise acquires the other two. Maimonides provides a different nuance, emphasizing the fact that the Torah belongs equally to every Jew, and therefore the plural verb: "the crown of priesthood was conferred upon Aaron, the crown of kingship was conferred upon David, but the crown of Torah is for all of Israel… Whoever deserves it, let him come and take it" (Laws of Torah Study 3, 1). It was because every Jew must have equal access to the Torah that R. Yehoshua Ben-Gamla began compulsory education from age six and onward close to 2,000 years ago (B.T. Bava Batra 15), and the talmudic sages praised Rabbi Eliezer for opening their academies to anyone who wished to enter (B.T. Brachot 28b). I believe there are two more reasons for the plural verb "and they shall make the Ark" - reasons which will likewise explain the eternal nature of the staves. When God forgave us for our sin of the Golden Calf and agreed to give us a second set of tablets, it was Moses - symbolizing Jewish religious leadership in partnership with God - who hewed out the stones and wrote the words. The plural verb includes the human input which God has empowered to complete His Torah... the Oral Law. And just as the sanctuary must bring God down to corporate Israel, so must the poles bring the Torah to the Jewish people. Secondly, we learn from the poles that this Oral Torah must "move" with history: it had to change Judaism from a Temple-centered faith to a synagogue-centered faith after the destruction of the Second Temple, it had to revise the laws of the sabbatical year and provide women with inheritance rights after the world moved from agriculture to industry, it had to account for different possibilities regarding fertility and the precise timing of death with new scientific discoveries, and it has to properly respond to the great possibilities wrought by our miraculous return to our homeland. The very term halacha - just like the "poles" - reflects movement, a movement which insists that "the old must be renewed, and the new must be sanctified" (Rav A.Y.H. Kook). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.