Light from the Sidra

Terumah (‘Portion’). 1 February 2014. 1 Adar 5774

Torah: Exodus 25:1–27:19. Haftarah: 1 Kings 5:26-6:13.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Back to Garden

If you visit the Timna Park in Israel, you can’t fail to notice a life-size replica of the Tabernacle described in this week’s parasha. Although none of the original materials such as gold, silver and bronze have been used, the model is accurate in every other way based upon the biblical description. There are replicas of the Tabernacle in Tennessee, Florida and Michigan but being located in the desert adds an extra authenticity to the model.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moses Nachman) taught that the redemption from Egypt was incomplete until the Tabernacle was erected. In Gan Eden, God walked with man in the cool of the day ‘toward evening,’ (Genesis 3:8) until the rebellion of Adam and Eve, after which they and – as a consequence – we were expelled. Since then, man has longed to get back to Eden. Joni Mitchell’s plaintive anthem to the Woodstock festival of 1967 saw the gathering as an attempt to ‘get ourselves back to the Garden’ but it failed. Religion is man’s attempt to return to that primordial place where God and man coexisted in harmony.

The greatest testimony to the failure of Judaism in its many forms is its inability to bring Jewish people back to God. How else do we explain the fact that so many Jewish people are turning to Eastern mysticism in order to find union with the Infinite? What else explains the failure of modern Judaism to meet the greatest human need of peace with God explains why even some Orthodox Jews seek spiritual fulfilment through alternative spiritual disciplines such as Yoga and Transcendental Meditation?

Immediately after judging Adam and Eve and cursing the serpent in Genesis 3, God announced in verse 15 his plan to restore humankind ‘back to the Garden.’ It would not be a case of mankind restoring themselves but rather God, through a ‘seed’ or ‘offspring’ of the woman, engaging the serpent in mortal combat in order to crush the serpent’s head.

But what was to be done until that cosmic conflict took place and the gates of Eden were opened to mankind once again? Genesis 4 starts with an account of the first recorded act of worship in history, when the sons of Adam and Eve approached HASHEM. Cain presented an offering from his crops, confident that his offering will be acceptable to God but, instead, it was rejected. When Abel offered the choicest of his flock, his sacrifice was accepted. At the dawn of history, a vital principle – which becomes more explicit later in the Torah – was laid down: the way to God lies through blood sacrifice.

When Noah and his family emerged from the ark into the new world, the very first thing they did was to offer sacrifices to God. The mark of the faith of Israel’s patriarchs was that they pitched their tents, built their altars and called on HASHEM: ‘. . . [Abram] pitched his tent . . . and he built there and altar to HASHEM and invoked HASHEM by Name’ (Genesis 12:8-9 see also Genesis 26:25 and 33:18-20).

Cain and Abel worshipped as individuals but the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped as priests of their families. With the redemption of Israel from Egypt, worship was centralised (literally) by the erection of a Tabernacle in the midst of Israel. The people were living in tents and HASHEM graciously set up his tent in their midst where they could meet with him.

Later, in the Haftarah, when Israel was long settled in the Promised Land, God allowed Solomon to set up a much grander and more permanent house for him: the temple. But though the temple was bigger and more majestic than the Tabernacle, the principle of approach to God remained the same as that in the time of Cain and Abel: sacrificial blood.

The Tabernacle was the meeting place of heaven and earth; the place where God met with man. God’s throne was situated in the Inner Sanctum of the Tabernacle and his presence was signalled by the glory cloud that hovered above it in much the same way as a flag flying over Buckingham Palace signals that the Queen is in residence. The ordinary Israelite never went closer to the Tabernacle than the bronze altar of sacrifice immediately inside the courtyard. HASHEM was approached via mediators in the form of the priests and, of the priests, only the high priest was allowed to go into God’s throne room.

The Tabernacle was a kind of Gan Eden. God drove man out of the Garden to the east, so entering the Tabernacle from the east was symbolically a return from exile. Representations of the cherubim that guarded the way to the Tree of Life were woven into the curtain that separated the Sanctuary from the Inner Sanctum, the throne room of God. Coming into the Tabernacle courtyard from the wilderness outside was a symbol of the ultimate return to Eden, which God was working towards but it was nevertheless adequate for the time.

The menorah, a solid gold, seven-branched lampstand shaped like an almond tree symbolised access to the Tree of Life God.

The Tabernacle was covered with three types of animal covering – goat’s hair, badger skins and ‘tachashim,’ a word translated in various ways, including seal skins and porpoise skins. Whatever tachash was, in order to see the true beauty of the Tabernacle with its gold-plated planks and its richly embroidered tapestry you had to go inside the tent. But what a remarkable thing it was that the King of the Universe would choose to live, as it were, in a house of flesh!

Solomon’s temple even more closely resembled a garden; a glorious, golden garden: ‘For the entrance of the Inner Sanctum [Solomon] made doors of olive wood . . . and two doors of olive wood upon which he engraved designs of cherubim, pals and blossoming flowers, and he overlaid [them] with gold . . . He [then] engraved [on the doors] designs of cherubim and palms and blossoming flowers, and he overlaid [them] with gold’ (1 Kings 6:31-35).

Though Solomon’s Temple was even grander and more glorious than the Tabernacle, the Temple was a sanctuary designed by humans. The pattern for the Tabernacle had been revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, nevertheless, HASHEM was prepared to live there. But if the Tabernacle was a God-given pattern that foreshadowed a return to Eden and fellowship with God, we must ask what the symbolism meant.

In the wilderness, God could be approached by the priests only after they had offered a sacrifice on the bronze altar and washed themselves in the bronze bath. The high priest approached the throne of God on Israel’s behalf once a year with the blood of an offering. If this was symbolic, what did the symbols point to? Could it be that God was indicating that just as he tabernacled among Israel in a house of skin he would one day live among Israel in literal flesh in order to bring mankind to himself?

In the Tanakh, there is an evident development in the way God is worshipped. At the beginning of Genesis, individuals approached him bringing the blood of a sacrificial lamb on an altar they had built. At the time of the patriarchs, families worshipped God by erecting an altar on which they offered the blood of sacrificial beasts and called on God by his revealed name, YHWH. When Israel became God’s people in order to be his light to the world, the nation worshipped at the Tabernacle and, under Solomon, at the temple.

Think about it. Now that there is no longer a temple, in what way can God now be approached? Is it possible that the way back to Eden has been opened? Is that why there has been no material temple for over 1,900 years? What if God actually, rather than symbolically, took on flesh and became one of us? What if he became a sacrificial lamb, as it were, and took upon himself the guilt and responsibility for the sins not only of Israel but also the world?

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