PARASHAT TRUMA: Divine presence and human interpretation

When God is not willing to part from the Torah.

THE TABERNACLE and the Sacred Vessels, as recounted in Exodus 40:17-19, from a 1728 book titled ‘Figures de la Bible.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE TABERNACLE and the Sacred Vessels, as recounted in Exodus 40:17-19, from a 1728 book titled ‘Figures de la Bible.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion of Truma, we read the commandment “…and have them take for Me an offering… And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). Afterward, we read a detailed accounting of how this sanctuary – the Mishkan (Tabernacle) – should be built. This temporary temple accompanied the Jewish nation during its wandering in the desert and in the Land of Israel until the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The instructions also included how the ritual objects within the Tabernacle should be made, including the Ark of the Covenant, the table, the menorah and the altar.
When one examines the Tabernacle and its objects, one immediately thinks of a comparison with a home.
This comparison comes up already in the scriptures when the Holy of Holies that contained the Ark is termed “the bedchamber” (II Kings 11:2). Other than that, the table and the menorah are basic furnishings that make a home suitable for living (compare with II Kings 4:10: “and place there for him a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp”). This leads one to wonder: Does God need a house to live in? Is it even conceivable that a transcendental God is limited to a specific place? King Solomon, who built the Temple in Jerusalem, expressed this clearly on the day of the Temple’s establishment when he said: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected” (I Kings 8:27).
Despite this, he built the Temple based on the commandment in the Torah portion. What is the meaning behind this commandment? The sages of the midrash tried to answer this question through the following allegory: This is compared to a king who had an only daughter.
A prince came and married her. He wanted to return home and take his wife with him. The king (her father) said, “My daughter whom I have given to you is my only daughter. I can’t separate myself from her, but I also cannot tell you not to take her, for she is your wife.
Rather do this favor for me: wherever you go, make me a small room so that I can live with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.” So said the Blessed be He to the Jewish nation: “I gave you the Torah, I cannot separate myself from it; I also cannot tell you not to take it; but wherever you go, make Me a small room for me to live in, as ‘make me a sanctuary’” (Exodus Raba 33:1).
Using this interesting allegory, our sages linked the need for a temple with the Torah being given to the Jewish people. The Torah does not stand on its own; it is a result of the Jewish nation’s great story: the nation that received the Torah and took upon itself the role of living moral and sacred lives that serve as an example for the whole of humanity.
When the Torah was given to the Jewish nation, God seemingly let go of it. A dispute among sages in the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago is described in the Talmud. The halachic dispute became an argument of principle, with Rabbi Eliezer being in the minority opinion. Rabbi Eliezer called to Heaven to prove his opinion correct.
Immediately, a heavenly voice (Bat Kol) rang out, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is like him at all times!” To protest, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and cited the verse in this week’s portion, “[The Torah] is not in Heaven.” Since God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, authority over Torah matters is here on Earth, not in Heaven (Baba Metzia 59). Indeed, the Torah was given by God and left for interpretation by the sages.
However, God is not willing to part from the Torah.
Complete separation between the Torah and its divine source leads to interpretations influenced by changing styles. What would seem in one generation to be moral and just might seem to another generation to be outdated and naïve. It is a spiritual tragedy to look at the Torah as a text that can be interpreted as one sees fit, leading to disconnection from all that is Jewish.
Therefore, God does not separate Himself from the Torah. He instructs us to built Him a sanctuary so that we remember that the “father” of the Torah never left her. Human interpretation is not unrestricted; it is contingent on principles, on ancient tradition, and must be taken seriously. This is how the Temple preserves the Torah. This understanding accompanied the Jewish nation also throughout the long periods of time after the Temple’s destruction – throughout 2,000 years of exile – when Jews prayed and still continue to pray “Return in Your mercy to Your city, Jerusalem.”
Nowadays, the Western Wall serves as a symbol of our closeness with God through our glorious past.
Young and old, from east and west, from north and south stream to the remnant of our Temple like ships returning to harbor. They wish to come into contact with something that no other place in the world can offer – their heritage and past, a reconnection with their eternal chain of generations.
Some of them come even for just a moment to experience the holiness that stems from somewhere beyond time and place. A holiness that stems from dozens of generations of yearning. A holiness rooted in our glorious past and age-old traditions with the power to ignite the soul.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.