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Parashat Terumah

February 12, 2016

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

Almost all of this week’s parashah is devoted to a detailed description of different aspects of the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle–which materials are to be used, how much of each, and how they are to be put together. At the beginning of the parashah, before we read all of these detailed descriptions, there is a verse which addresses the larger question of the purpose of the mishkan.

“Let them make Me a Sanctuary (mikdash) and I shall dwell (ve-shakhanti) among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

This short verse contains a powerful theological statement, God declares that he will dwell in this sanctuary. Even within the Bible questions were raised about this idea. When King Solomon finished dedicating the Temple he recited a prayer that included the following:

“Does God truly dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their utmost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built?” (I Kings 8:27)

In an article titled “Interpreting ‘the Resting of the Shekhinah,'” Mordechai Z. Cohen of Yeshiva University examined how the idea of God’s presence in the sanctuary was discussed by three different Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages: Moses Maimonides (Rambam), Moses Nachmanides (Ramban), and the anonymous author of Sefer Ha-Hinnukh. Cohen found that they understood Exodus 25:8 in different ways.

In his Book of Commandments Maimonides wrote:

The twentieth commandment is that He commanded us to make a house of worship in which there shall be [animal] sacrifice and the constant burning of fire, and to which people should travel, and to there will be pilgrimage and the yearly gathering…and this is His dictum, may He be exalted, “Let them make Me a sanctuary (mikdash).”

Cohen pointed out the connection that the Rambam drew between the Tabernacle and the Temple and the way in which the Rambam emphasized the role of the Temple in the fulfillment of human needs. But what about God’s presence? For this we have to look in Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed (I:25, trans. Pines).

Shakhon: It is known that the meaning of this verb is “to dwell.” Thus: “And he was dwelling by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 14:13)…This verb is also figuratively applied to things that are not living beings and in fact to anything that is fixed and adheres to another thing…It is on account of this latter figurative sense that the verb is applied figuratively to God, may He be exalted…In every case in which this occurs with reference to God, it is used in the sense of duration of His Presence–I mean His created light–in a place, or the duration of providence with regard to a certain matter. Each passage should be understood according to its context.

According to Cohen, “Here Maimonides simply assumes that the term shekhinah means ‘His created light.'”

Unlike the Rambam, in his commentary on Exodus 25 the Ramban emphasized the presence of God in the tabernacle.

The purpose (sod) of the Tabernacle is that the Glory (kavod) which dwelt (shakhan) upon Mount Sinai [openly] should dwell (yishkon) within it in a concealed manner. For just as it is said there “The Glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai” (24:16)…so it is written of the Tabernacle, “The Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)

The author of Sefer Ha-Hinnukh presented a different approach to the Tabernacle. He wrote:

[It] compels us to say that building a Temple for the Lord, blessed be He, there to offer up our prayers and our sacrifices to Him, would be entirely in order to prepare our hearts for His worship (may He be Exalted)–not because He needs to dwell in a house of human beings or come under the shelter of their roof…for heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, and by His spirit they endure. All the more certainly would His glory have no need of a house built by human beings, perish the thought! This is surely a known and clear matter, that it was all [meant] for making our physical selves worthy. For the physical self becomes qualified through [its] actions. As good actions are multiplied and as they are continued with great perserverance, the thoughts of the heart become purified, cleansed and refined…Then by the worthiness of deed and the perfection of thought that we would attain there, our intelligence would ascend to [find] adherence (deveikut) with the supernal [divine] intelligence. (Commandment 95, trans. Wengrov)

For Sefer Ha-Hinnukh the Tabernacle with all of its details was really a vehicle for the improvement of human behavior and character through which we would become closer to God. While we might sometimes get lost in the details of religious life, we must not lose sight of the larger goal of multiplying our good actions and drawing nearer to God.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.