Parshas Terumah: From Mishkan to Beis Knesses

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Terumah, we are introduced to the Mishkan, the (portable) Sanctuary that the nation built in the desert.  The keilim (vessels) of the Mishkan included the copper laver for the kohanim’s washing of hands and feet before service, the copper altar for animal sacrifices, the golden altar for the daily incense offerings, the golden table which housed the show bread, the golden menorah which was lit every evening, as well as the holy ark in the Holy of Holies, where the Divine Presence rested (keviyachol).  Each of the keilim were beautiful, intricate and precise in design and structure, and sanctified for the Divine service for which it was created.  It was here, in the Mishkan, that one could come to find the holiness of the Shechina, to connect with the kohanim, and to find refuge and tranquility in its holy space.  And what was the end goal of the Mishkan, of this hallowed, sanctified space?  וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָםand they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them and amongst them (Shemos 25:8).  

The Mishkan was the precursor to the Batei Mikdash that would eventually be built in Jerusalem, where the nation would ascend three times a year to celebrate the Three Festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Succos, and around which Jewish life revolved during Temple times, under independent Jewish commonwealths.  The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.  Alas, almost 2,000 years later, we remain exiled, and the makom Mikdash (place where the Temples stood) remains in ruins; עַל הַרצִיּוֹן שֶׁשָּׁמֵם, שׁוּעָלִים הִלְּכוּבוֹupon Mt. Zion, which is desolate, foxes prowl there (Eichah 5:18).  

What, then has been the unifying, central place that has kept our people intact throughout our long exile and dispersion, has allowed for communities to thrive, established connections between Jews and their leaders, and perpetuated the dual mesoros of Torah and Tefillah?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l writes, “It is hard to understand the depth of the crisis into which the destruction of the first Temple plunged the Jewish people.  Their very existence was predicated on a relationship with G-d symbolised by the worship that took place daily in Jerusalem.  With the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE, Jews lost not only their land and sovereignty.  In losing the Temple, it was as if they had lost hope itself.  For their hope lay in G-d, and how could they turn to G-d if the very place where they served Him was in ruins? 

“The Temple no longer stood, but its memory remained, and this memory was strong enough to bring Jews together in collective worship.  In exile, in Babylon, Jews began to gather to expound Torah, articulate a collective hope of return, and recall the Temple and its service… A radically new institution was formed, and it eventually became known as the Beit Knesset (the synagogue).  

“The synagogue is one of the most remarkable examples of an ‘awakening from below.’  It came into being not through words spoken by G-d to Israel, but by words spoken by Israel to G-d.  There is no synagogue in Tanach, no command to build local houses of prayer…

“The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart.  It is the ultimate expression of monotheism – that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for G-d is everywhere.  Where did this world-changing idea come from?  It did not originate with the Temple, but rather from a much earlier institution: the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  It was portable, made of beams and hangings that could be dismantled and carried from place to place.  But the Tabernacle, though a temporary structure, ultimately had permanent influence, whereas the Temple, intended to be permanent, proved to be temporary – until, as we pray daily, it is rebuilt.

“However, more magnificent than the physical structure of the Tabernacle was its metaphysical structure.  The very idea that one can build a home for G-d seems absurd… The answer lies in this week’s parsha: They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them. (Ex.25:8)… The Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart… The essence of ‘the holy’ is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain wholly set aside for G-d.  

“If the concept of Mishkan is that G-d lives in the human heart, then its physical location becomes irrelevant.  Thus the way was open, seven centuries later, to the establishment of the synagogue: if G-d is everywhere, He can be reached anywhere.  More than any other, it is the institution of the synagogue – the Beit Knesset – that kept the Jewish people alive through almost 2,000 years of dispersion – the longest of all journeys through the wilderness” (Covenant & Conversation, Exodus, p.189-192).

It is compelling to note that when Esther orders Mordechai to gather the Jews of Shushan, as she prepares to go to King Achashveirosh and plead for the life of her nation, Esther sends a message to Mordechai: לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶתכָּלהַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן, וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַלתֹּאכְלוּ וְאַלתִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם, go and gather all the Jews that are found in Shushan, and fast for me, do not eat and do not drink for three days, night and day, me and my maidens will fast as well (Esther 4:16).  Gather together, in a place of gathering, Esther commands, unite in fasting, sackcloth and prayer, and let us gather together to accrue merits in our favor.  

The Beit Knesses, lit. House of Gathering, is a holy abode where we gather together in worship of G-d, and the Divine Presence, in response to our service, comes down (keviyachol) to join us.  Only when all Jews gather together, united in our shared destiny and common journey, will we merit the ultimate redemption and revelation.  

As the prayers of the Jews of Shushan were answered in response to their repentance, prayer and kenisi’ah (gathering), may we merit that our tefilos be answered, as we revere the Beis Knesses, while we yet long for the redemption and Binyan Bayis Shlishi, may it be immediate and in our days.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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