“Parsha to the Point” – Terumah 5777

Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19)

Rabbi David Stav 

Last week, we delved deeply into the ethical precepts that were given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, which would form the basis for a practical judicial framework that would guarantee the existence of a moral and just civil society.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we abruptly move to an entirely different world, with no prior warning or preparation. This is the world of the tabernacle and the equipment used within it, such as the menorah, the table, the ark of the covenant, and the altar. This would be the portable tabernacle that would accompany the Jewish People as they wandered through the desert. Later, the tabernacle would be stationed at Shiloh, where it would function for several centuries.

The Torah declares, “…and they shall make a tabernacle for Me, and I shall dwell among them” [Ex. 25:8]. How did we get to this commandment? Where did it come from? Why was there not even a hint to the need to construct a tabernacle when the nation was receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai?

This question becomes even more pertinent when we remember the last verses concerning that exalted event at Sinai. There, Moshe was told: “… Wherever I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” [20:20]. This is to say, a person could erect an altar at any time and place, and God promises that He will come and make His presence dwell there.

Suddenly, however, the Torah tells us to build a tabernacle, which is to have a prescribed structure, and would be equipped with painstakingly-defined utensils along with an altar with precise measurements. What happened to the stone and earthenware altar at the end of Parshat Yitro? Did God have a change of heart, having once welcomed freedom of worship everywhere, only to now limit that worship to a very specific place?

Our Sages tell us to take a broader view, and consider the Sin of the Golden Calf. This interpretation posits that this incident, which will only be described two portions later in the Torah, had actually occurred before the time of Parshat Terumah. According to this view, the details of Parshat Terumah are the Divine reaction to the failure represented by the Sin of the Golden Calf.

That sin highlighted the need for God to be more explicit, and specify where worship could be performed. Otherwise, the idol-worship that had been ingrained into the Jewish People for hundreds of years would return and resurface in various forms (and this is indeed what occurred later).

This is a reasonable interpretation, but even if we follow this view and no other, we would remain with the question of why the Torah hadn’t stated all of this unambiguously. Why did it not simply relate the story of the Golden Calf, and immediately thereafter, command us to build the tabernacle?

Moreover, nothing in the text of the Torah alludes to the notion that the story of the commandment to build the tabernacle had occurred in retrospect, and not as originally planned. Could there be another element we could add to our contemplation of these verses?

No system of ethics can suffice simply with abstract principles. Such a system needs to clearly define rules and laws on how any violation of the accepted or expected ethical norms would be punished. It would need to spell out the fate of thieves, murderers, and others. Even if it truly wanted to, a system of ethics would need not go to the same lengths to determine how the benevolent are to be rewarded.

None of its ordinances would reward a person who visits the sick or gives charity. Naturally, we would expect those who value morality not to suffice with merely avoiding actions that would lead to punishment. They would want to do good, and they would not need specific instructions to do so. A reasonable individual would also understand that sometimes, it is best not to overburden someone who is ill with unneeded visits, or to give unnecessary or counterproductive charity to the needy.

All of this is crystal clear when it comes to issues between man and his fellow man. But what about man’s relationship with God? Logic would direct us to apply the same principles as those followed in relationships between human beings. This is why prohibitions such as worshipping deities, sacrificing our children to Molech and other abominations are forbidden. But we would also avoid creating instructions for what should be done – just like the social system mentioned above.

It turns out that this is true, in theory, but it doesn’t really work. The ideal is for God to come to us anywhere we might be and bless us. Ideally, a person should feel proximity to God anywhere he or she chooses. In fact, some people love to seclude themselves and commune with God, deep in a forest or gazing at a breathtaking sunset over the sea, and for good reason.

However, this practice cannot be maintained in the long run. Limitless freedom of worship will lead those at the fringes to unspeakable horrors. The Torah wants us to understand that the tabernacle was not constructed in reaction to the Sin of the Golden Calf. Rather, the need to painstakingly regulate the worship of Hashem stems from a desire to “calibrate” our moral compasses and prevent us from making critical mistakes.

Otherwise, people may, some day, begin claiming, in the Name of God, that murder, robbery, adultery and other wrongdoings are actually imperatives. The Torah wants to prevent such a scenario from materializing by giving us a very accurate explanation, from the very beginning, of how God is to be worshipped, and any deviation from these instructions is wrong.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]


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