Truma: At home with the divine

What is the real purpose of this Sanctuary - forerunner of the Temple - and its significance to the Jewish people?

parsha teruma 88 (photo credit: )
parsha teruma 88
(photo credit: )
What is the real purpose of this Sanctuary - forerunner of the Temple - and its significance to the Jewish people? This is a crucial question, especially when we note that the last five Torah portions in Exodus deal with the precise plans of the Sanctuary in the desert, situated at the very center of the tribes. Indeed, the Western Wall of the Temple, and even the Temple Mount itself, continues to inspire and excite Jews from all over the world as the foremost religious shrine of Israel reborn. Hence our understanding of the message of the Sanctuary will go a long way in helping us understand the message of Judaism itself. The Ramban (Nahmanides), noting that the commandment to build the Sanctuary directly follows the Revelation at Sinai (the portion of Mishpatim is a continuation of the Ten Commandments, according to the Midrash), maintains that the Sanctuary's function was to be a center from which the Divine Voice would continue to direct the Israelites. Therefore the very first aspect of the Sanctuary which the Bible describes is the Ark, repository of the Decalogue: "And I shall meet with you there, and I shall speak to you from above the ark cover, from between the two cherubs, which is on top of the Ark of testimony" (Exodus 25:22). Moses reiterates this notion of an ongoing Revelation when he reviews the event at Sinai in his final speech: "God spoke these words to your entire assemblage from on the mountain amidst the fire, the cloud and the fog, a great voice which never stops" (Deuteronomy 5:19). This is likewise emphasized in our classical blessing over the Torah: "Blessed are You... Who has chosen us from all the nations and has given us [past tense] His Torah. Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives [present tense] the Torah." Hence, the place where the Revelation continued was originally above the Ark of the Sanctuary; it therefore is quite logical that throughout the Second Temple period - in the absence of the Sacred Tablets as well as the gift of prophecy - that the Great Sanhedrin, interpreters of God's word for every generation, sat on the Temple Mount. It is, after all, the function of the Oral Torah to keep God's word alive and relevant in every time and situation. From this perspective, after the destruction of the Second Temple, it is the synagogues and study houses - our central institutions of Torah reading, learning and interpretation - which are the legitimate heirs to the Sanctuary. Mystical and hassidic interpretations see in the Sanctuary another purpose altogether: the building of a home in which the Almighty and Israel (ultimately all of humanity) will dwell. The Revelation at Sinai symbolized the betrothal between God and Israel - with the marriage contract being the tablets of stone, the biblical laws. The commandment to erect a sanctuary enjoins us to build the nuptial house in which the Almighty "bridegroom" unites with His bride - Israel. Hence, the accoutrements of the Sanctuary are an ark (repository for the tablets), a menora, a table for the shewbread - the usual furnishings of a home - as well as an altar. Everyone knows it is impossible to establish a family without a willingness to sacrifice: each spouse for his/her partner, parents for children, and even children for the family unit. And if the Almighty created a world - albeit an incomplete, imperfect one - in which humanity can dwell, we Jews must recreate a more perfect sanctuary, must establish a society, even a world, in which the Divine will feel comfortable. From this perspective, the heir to the destroyed Temples is the Jewish home. It is because Judaism sees the home as the "mother of all religious institutions" that home-centered family rituals bear a striking parallel to the rituals of the Temple. The most obvious example is that mystical and magical evening known as the Passover Seder, modeled on the paschal meal in Jerusalem during Temple times, when every parent becomes a teacher whose primary task is to convey - through songs, stories, explication of biblical passages and special food - the most seminal experience in Jewish history: the exodus from Egyptian servitude. And every Shabbat and festival meal is a mini Seder. Even before the sun sets on Friday, the mother of the family kindles the Shabbat lights, reminiscent of the priests' lighting of the menora each day. The blessing over the kiddush wine reminds us of the wine libations accompanying most sacrifices, and the carefully braided hallot symbolize the 12 loaves of shewbread which were changed in the Temple every Friday before dusk. Parents bless their children with the same benediction with which the High Priest blessed the congregation in the Temple, and the ritual washing of the hands before partaking of the halla parallels the ablutions of the priests before engaging in Temple service. The salt in which we dip the halla before reciting the blessing over bread is based on the biblical decree, "You shall place salt on all your sacrifices" (Leviticus 2:13), since salt, which is an external preservative, is symbolic of the indestructibility of God's covenant with Israel. The songs that are sung and the Torah that is taught during a Friday night meal echo the singing of the Levites and the teachings of the priests in the Temple. So Shabbat meals link the generations, making everyone feel a part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the divine. I believe that both views - the Sanctuary as continuing Revelation, and the Sanctuary as the nuptial home of God and Israel - express the fundamental significance of our Holy Temple. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.