Exodus 25-27 (“So that I may dwell among them.”)
Questions by Joel Cohen
This parsha tells us, in exquisite detail, the construction requirements of the Tabernacle. The dictates of the process aside, it sounds, in some respects, like the commercial plans of a design architect for the inside and outside of a modern building – even down to the gold and silver ornaments, the formation of the Cherubim and the dimensions of acacia wood components of the structure. We are told that God dictated these meticulous elements of the design architecture in order that the Tabernacle will be “a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell among them.”
Interestingly, assuming God already intended that there would be a Temple once the Israelites would settle in the Promised Land, this Sanctuary would only be in use for a relatively short period of time. That is, unless God already intended that the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years and would require a portable Tabernacle.
But the bigger question arises from God’s comment on the purpose of the Tabernacle: to create “A Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them.” Indeed, for two thousand years now we have had neither a Tabernacle nor a Temple “so that I may dwell among them.”
• Does God only dwell among us when we create a particular edifice according to His dictates?
• God has not given us instructions for houses of worship either in the Diaspora or even Israel. Are we left to believe that God doesn’t dwell among us any longer? Is a particularized structure necessary for the Scheinah to physically reside?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
Joel—your question has brought the descriptions of Parshat Terumah right up to date. Actually, the rabbis who lived immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple were faced with the same problem. Imagine an entire nation whose religious center was the Temple in Jerusalem. They traveled there at least three times a year to celebrate the holidays of Pesach, Shvuot and Succot. In addition, there is a debate among historians whether there were synagogues during the time of the Temple. Even if these synagogues existed, they did not play a central role while the Temple stood.
In 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Temple. The Jews were sent to the city of Yavneh to rebuilt and recreate Judaism. But, how could this be done without a Temple. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great leader of this Yavneh community, introduced the idea that continues to define Jewish worship and practice—-that the synagogue is a “Mikdash Me’at”—a miniature Temple. In other words, the synagogues and its religious and communal purposes replace the Temple. This served to comfort that generation that had lost the Temple and to legitimize the local synagogues as Jews spread throughout the world.
Not surprisingly, the synagogue architecture has come to imitate the Temple architecture. The ark stands in the front of the shul containing the Torah scrolls much as the ark in the Temple contained the Torah scroll written by Moshe. The chazzan who stands in the center of the shul in many ways replaces the High Priest who acted on behalf of the community. One other example of synagogue architecture modeled on Temple architecture if the mechitzah, separating men and women during services. The Mishna explains that during the annual Succot parties in the Temple, in order to prevent inappropriate mingling, they created a separate section for the women. Today, our mechitzah or balcony serves the very same purpose.
So, Joel, indeed the Torah does provide guidelines for the architecture and the substantive role of the synagogue in Jewish life today.
The answer lies in the wording of the last question, “Is a particularized structure necessary for the Shechinah to physically reside?”
What does the Shechinah residing mean? Is this a figurative form of speech? Is this an objective reality whether or not we can see it, or maybe a subjective experience felt only by the fine-tuned human being?
This issue was highly debated by many great Jewish philosophers, theologians and Kabbalists.
Though not the classic view, the Sefer HaChinuch (publisher anonymously in 13th century Spain) understands that the purpose of building the Temple is to provide a place that is conducive for focus and concentration on the Almighty and His wisdom. The meticulous setup and the details of high maintenance, all contributed to this end. The heightened level of G-dly awareness achieved through this, writes the Chinuch, is the basic meaning of “the Shechinah residing in a given place”.
Accordingly, the modern synagogue, which, as Rabbi Mintz mentions, is the Mikdash Me’at, and is designed in similar fashion to the Temple, would serve the same purpose, and thus also provide a “residence for the Shechinah”. In the words of the prophets (Ezekiel 11:16), “Although I have removed them far off among the nations and although I have scattered them in the lands, I have become for them a minor sanctuary in the lands where they have come.”
Others, such as Nachmanides and the Kabbalists, explain this residence of G-d to be more of an objective reality. Just as the brain serves as the central nervous system of the human, so, too, the Kodesh Hakadashim (Holy of Holies) served as the command center for the Divine energy that sustains the world. The condensed G-dly energy present in the Temple was felt and visible in the daily miracles which took place in the Temple, as described in Pirkei Avot and other places in the Talmud.
They too agree that this G-dly energy is present today to some degree in the Houses of Prayer and Torah study, where G-d’s very words and wisdom are taught and internalized.
Whatever this residence may be, it is not limited, however, to the confines of the Holy Temple or synagogue. All are in agreement that G d instructed that the Mishkan and later the Beit Hamikdash, be built as a “model home” — a structure that will embody, on a highly condensed and intensified scale, His vision of a dwelling for Himself in the physical world. Thus, truthfully, we are expected to this residence in our own homes, and indeed, in every other aspect of our lives as well.
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