One of the learnings my students take with them is just how adaptable Judaism is. Nothing is static. Even in the ‘Orthodox’ world Jewish tradition is always evolving. A good example are the halachot – Jewish laws – surrounding Shabbat (or any holiday for that matter). The mitzvah to celebrate Shabbat is riddled throughout the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible. But it was left to Jewish tradition to determine the how of Shabbat where the Torah only taught the why of the holiday. These phenomena are seen in every single aspect of Jewish life. But where did it come from?
Actually, it came from a thread of tradition and history that has its origins in this week’s Torah portion.
In parashat Terumah, the description of the Tabernacle is given in great detail. The altar upon which the priests would offer the sacrifices and offerings of the people to God, the description of the Tent, the details of the Ark which held the Tablets of the Law, the priests’ garments, and so forth, we all included in this parasha. The descriptions are the details of a religious mindset which beautified what was the most important part of Jewish society.
The fascinating thing about every aspect of the Tabernacle is that it was created to be portable. Wherever the Jews traveled, the Tabernacle and all its associated parts would have to be folded up, packed carefully, and transported in the most holy fashion to whatever the next destination was. Remember that word: portability.
When the Jews finally entered the Land of Israel, the template for the Tabernacle served as the template for the Temple in Jerusalem although, to be sure, the Temples in Jerusalem were significantly more elaborate and ornate (especially the Second Temple).
But in 586BCE, Jewish history was rent asunder. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people to far-off Babylonia. It was there the dispersed and exiled Jews settled remaining there for some 2000 years in what is modern-day Iraq. But how to be Jewish when the center of Jewish life was so dramatically disrupted? The answer came from the leaders of the Jewish people with inspiration from the prophets and other places in the Tanach. King Solomon asked, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). Isaiah asked, “Heaven is My throne,
and the earth is My footstool. Where is the house you will build for Me? Where will My resting place be? (Isaiah 66:1)” With these texts in hand – and many more like them – the Jewish people found their answer to the destruction of their beloved Temple. God was no longer taught to be confined to a space, regardless of how sacred it was.
With this astonishing interpretation of Torah, the Jews established the synagogue (a word that simply means ‘meeting place’ or ‘assembly,’ but not necessarily a building), established the reading of the Torah as a daily and weekly practice, planted the seeds for the worship service and took the spirituality of the Temple and brought it to the ‘mikdash me’at’ – the small sanctuary which evolved to mean the home and the heart.
This is an astonishing revolution in religion. In fact, it is this revolution that created the template for every church, mosque and, of course, synagogue that would follow it. While there were still places that held a measure of holiness, worship and connection to God was no longer confined to one space.
So successful was this revolution that when the Jews had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem after the Persians defeated the Babylonians seventy years later, relatively few of them went back to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. (You should read the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah for a record of this effort). Life was good in Babylonia and the Temple, despite its historical significance, was no longer the center of the Jewish world.
Remember the word I asked you to keep in mind? Portablity. It was the Jewish propensity to make portable what was literally concrete and fixed. They took the opening words of this week’s parasha and they made it something intensely personal. When the Torah says “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [betokham]” (Exodus 25:8)’ Jewish mystics taught that the grammar is odd. It should say,“I will dwell in it,” (referring to the Tabernacle). Rather it reads “I will dwell in them.” The lesson is apparent: God lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in our souls and our hearts. Even today’s synagogues are not the place were God dwells. It is, rather, the place where the Holy One can be focused on without distraction and a place to inspire us to carry God with us outside its walls.
Ours is a portable religion. Not only do we carry the Tabernacle with us, we carry God with us and, like the Tabernacle, God is lovingly carried from one place to another regardless of how far we wander from home.