“When Ritual Becomes Idolatry”
With Parshat Terumah, we have reached the final section of the Book of Exodus. In these concluding Torah portions, we are introduced to some vital concepts.
We are introduced to the construction of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the desert and the forerunner of the Mikdash – the Temple in the Jerusalem in Terumah and Tetzave, which we will read next week. Afterwards, we are told about Shabbat, which is juxtaposed to the construction of the Tabernacle to teach us that the building of the tabernacle does not suspend the prohibitions of Shabbat. Our rabbis learned from this that precisely those creative labors used to build the Tabernacle define the activities forbidden on the Sabbath. Further on in Ki Tissa, is the incident of the Golden Calf, and immediately afterwards we return to the subjects of Shabbat and the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
Tabernacle, Shabbat, the story of the Golden Calf, Shabbat and Tabernacle.
What is the connection between these various components? What insight can we derive from this interplay? I think that there is a profound message here for each and every one of us.
The whole purpose of the Tabernacle and of the Temple was to create sacred encounters with God. Our challenge is to use that structure to create multiple portals to connect with the Divine.
Judaism involves a great deal of structure and prescribed actions. There’s a danger in that structure and repeated activity to become rote behavior, robotic and fossilized. Our prophets recognized this; Isaiah spoke out against treating the Torah as “a commandment of men learned by rote”. Instead of conduits to create sacred encounters with God, the commandments can become formalized and spiritless rituals. The concluding Torah portions of the Book of Exodus, which focuses on freedom and redemption, come to remind us that institutions such as the Mishkan and the Mikdash are not ends in themselves. They must be like the experience of Shabbat, a portal to spirituality, a means through which we connect with God- otherwise they become no different from the Golden Calf. Even the Two Tablets of the Covenant, according to the 19th century thinker, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, were in danger of becoming a fetish for worship, similar to the Golden Calf. That’s why Moshe broke them. That is why the Temple was eventually destroyed. It was no longer a place where the Jewish people experienced God’s Presence.
The Mishkan and Shabbat are juxtaposed. They are meant to be points in place and time where we experience God. And if you remove that connection, then you are left with a Golden Calf.
How many times in our lives -and I’m speaking to myself more than anybody else, -how often are we so committed to the ritual that we forget about the message, or the language, or the conduit, through which the ritual is trying to get us to connect with God?
Says God, at the end of the book of Exodus, the book of freedom, I will orchestrate these laws in the following fashion. The Tabernacle and the Temple are a means for us – God and man, God and the Jewish people, God and society – to create a bond. We have an opportunity to step out of the everyday world and create a sacred space and a Shabbat-like experience.
If we forget this message, if we forget that sacred space and rituals are an opportunity and not an end in themselves, then they become no different from the Golden Calf. That is what makes this orchestration, this spiritual symphony, where each instrument plays its own proper part, so essential to leading a holy life.