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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Parashat Terumah - the Haftara

Parashat Terumah – the Haftara
1Kings 5:26 – (4:29) – 6:13
Reading date: 28th February 2009 – 4th Adar 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
Then the word of the Eternal came to Solomon: Concerning this Temple that you have been building [I tell you this]: If you obey My statutes and carry out My rules of justice and take care to keep all My commandments, I will fulfill my promise, the one I made to your father David, and I will dwell among the people of Israel, and never forsake My people Israel. I Kings 6:11-13

As long as we have Torah, we still have a way back to the Garden.

Our Parasha now turns its attention to the construction of a portable sanctuary, the Mishkan, and the detailed description will take up most of the remainder of the book of Exodus. The Haftara parallels the Torah portion with a description of the construction of Solomon's Temple. In addition to this thematic link,, some of the technical terms used ‘tzela’ are identical. Most significant, is the ending of the Haftara which parallels the beginning of our Torah portion, where YHVH promises to 'dwell' (from the same root as Mishkan) among the people of Israel.
Solomon succeeded his father David (around 970 BCE). Solomon allied himself with Hiram of Tyre, and commissioned an enormous work force to provide the labor to cut the stones and the trees necessary for the construction of the Temple.

Our parasha begins with the famous, if slightly ungrammatical verse: "You shall make [for] Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in them" (Ex. 25:8) (Shouldn't we expect it to say, 'dwell in it' not 'in them'?). Our Haftara uses similar language: "If you follow my laws, I will dwell among the people of Israel." It is as if, notwithstanding its excruciating detailed description of the physical structure, the Torah is already hinting that YHVH doesn't dwell in sanctuaries. YHVH dwells in the hearts and minds of people. Alice Walker expresses a similar sentiment in The Color Purple,
"Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for Him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God."

But in Parashat Terumah, YHVH can be found in the sanctuary. The Mishkan was a portable sanctuary that served as the locus of YHVH's presence, and the Torah goes into a lot of descriptive detail about how to build the Mishkan: the lavers, the curtains, and the altars. But even with all the architectural detail and precise instructions, (notwithstanding attempts to visualize, or even reconstruct it) much remains unclear. (Too bad the Torah didn't come with illustrations.) There is a model of the Mishkan at Park Timna in the South of Israel made to the largest cubit. It is worthwhile going to see it on your next visit to Israel.

Certainly one of the features that has captured the imagination of artists were two golden 'keruvim' inside the Holy of Holies. The image of ‘keruvim’ was also woven into the fabric of the curtains surrounding the entire structure. What were they and what did they look like? ‘Keruvim’ transliterated became the English 'cherub' and portrayed by Renaissance artists as winged, chubby babies. (This may be based on an Aramaic play on words that interprets ‘Keruv’ to mean ‘ke-ravia’, like a child.) According to Rashi, they had the faces of a boy and a girl; his grandson, the Rashbam thought they were more like birdlike creatures. According to the visions of Ezekiel, they were fantastic creatures with wheels, (!) wings and hands and four faces: eagle, lion, ox and human. Although they may have taken numerous forms, they probably resembled the Near Eastern deities such as the Egyptian sphinx or the winged bulls of Babylonia that guarded temples and palaces. (Even today, outside important buildings we often can find lions). ‘Keruvim’ may have been winged lions with human (child?) faces. The rampant lions (usually identified as Lions of Judah) holding the two tablets that adorn many Arks in synagogues may more likely be symbolic replacements for the cherubim.

Whatever their appearance, the ‘keruvim’ in the Mishkan are guarding the engraved stone tablets. Now just last week we read about prohibited graven images, and now we learn that, surprisingly, inside the Holy of Holies, just above the tablets (where that very prohibition is found) are two very graven gold figures. What are they doing there? But there is one more surprise: there is another (often overlooked) instance where we encounter the image of ‘keruvim’ guarding. Remember back in Genesis, when we were expelled from the Garden of Eden, YHVH stations ‘keruvim’ at the entrance and surprisingly uses the same root (vayashken) of Mishkan (and Shechinah). How are the ‘keruvim’ of the Garden of Eden and the Mishkan connected?

After we were expelled from the Garden how would we find our way back? In Learn Torah With... (ed. Grishaver & Kelman, Torah Aura, 5756), Rabbi Mordecai Finley suggests that the presence of ‘keruvim’ in both texts makes it obvious! The way back to the gate of the Garden of Eden, was right in front of us; wherever you find ‘keruvim’ you find the gate that leads to Eden. But now what? The physical portable sanctuary no longer remains. The Temple has been destroyed. The beautiful work of art filled with crimson and purple wool, gold and acacia wood are gone. Where is the spiced oil and the sweet incense? The golden ‘keruvim’ no longer exist.
But the journey into YHVH's presence, back to the Garden, guarded by the ‘keruvim’ is still available. They were guarding the contents of the Ark, YHVH's word-- the Torah. After all, we even call the Torah ‘etz ha-hayyim’, the Tree of Life! As long as we make space for Torah in our lives, we still have a way back to the Garden and back to YHVH's presence.

Shabbat Shalom

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