Friday, February 8, 2019 /3 Adar, 5779
Parashat T’rumah Exodus 25:1-27:19
We have had an age-old conflict, or controversy, in Torah and Jewish life about the role of the corporeal in our religious tradition, and it especially arises in this week’s Torah portion, and the remaining chapters of the Book of Exodus.
This week we read of the charge to build a tabernacle – a place to encounter God – while trekking in the desert. Later, that place would become the Temples in Jerusalem, and later, though somewhat recast in a new format, the synagogue and temple of today. Yet, the question remains, what is the need or value of a physical place to encounter the unseen God-force of Jewish life? Essentially, do we need physical places for a spiritual God-encounter?
Aside from this week, when the Torah commands us to build the Tabernacle, with skins, and wood and silver and gold, exactly according to the Divine blueprints which we receive this week, the issue arises again in a few weeks with the Golden Calf episode. There, the question is even more pronounced, can we countenance a depiction or figurine to mediate the Jewish God-experience, or is it anathema?
Over the millennia, some sages and commentators have suggested that the physical spaces were transitional objects, to “wean” us from the pagan influences of living among Egyptians and Canaanites, and to prepare us for life as Jews. We could not transition cold-turkey from the world of icons and idols to the world of the spirit, the mind, and mitzvah. Thus, the place offered a temporary spiritual shelter to mediate the terrifying process of submitting to an unseen God.
Other commentators suggested that the place was another manner of preparation for the Jewish life of the spirit – that when we could successfully make a place to encounter God’s dwelling, then we were certain that God, Godself was not, itself, corporeal. We could experience engaging with God, but not see or hear Godself. Hence, the place was an affirmation of our sureness in worshiping and serving the Invisible, yet all-encompassing God.
Lastly, a modern commentator saw a parallel in our creating a place for God, with God creating a place for us – that this week’s Torah portion mirrored the original creation in Genesis. Hence, we are completing the circle, now that we have exited Egyptian slavery and emerged to be God’s devoted people. Building the Tabernacle is the denouement of the establishment of our people and dedication to the Holy One.
Thus, we enter and assert the physical realm in Jewish life. It is still conflicted, yet, we have compelling explanations to offer rationales. Now, it is up to us to find our own comfort!
Rabbi Doug Kohn