Parashat Terumah

The Role Of Ritual

In focusing on ritual laws, Parashat Terumah teaches us that by reliving heroic historic moments we can introduce the transcendent into our daily lives.

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"The secret of the Tabernacle is that the Divine Glory, which rested on Mount Sinai, rests upon it [the Tabernacle], in a hidden way. And just as it says there [on Mount Sinai] 'and the Glory of God rested on Mount Sinai' (Exodus, 24, 16), and it says 'behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and his greatness' (Deuteronomy, 5, 20), so, too, it says concerning the Tabernacle 'and the glory of God filled the Tabernacle' (Exodus, 40, 34). ...And there was in the Tabernacle, always, with Israel, the glory which was seen by them on Mount Sinai."

Reliving Revelation

According to the Ramban, the Tabernacle, and, after it, the Temple in Jerusalem, was meant to offer the people the opportunity to experience, again and again, the defining moment of Jewish history; the revelation at Sinai. This was achieved through ritual; the physical experience of the Sanctuary, the vessels, the Priests, the Levites, the sacrifices, all came together to create for the devotee the 'ultimate' experience, the experience of Sinai, the presence of God. These ritual objects and acts are the means, not the ends, with which one could relive the most important moment in our collective consciousness.

I think that there is something important being said here about a gap, a fissure in our lives. A gap between what once was, or might have been, and what is. Between a remembered, imagined, or anticipated reality, and life as it is really lived. The Jewish people at Mount Sinai went thorough a heroic, unforgettable, transcendent experience, the climax of a series of such experiences. By definition, whatever came next would be anti-climactic.

The Torah, after the 'heroic' period of Genesis and Exodus, now moves on to grapple with a question that we must all deal with in our own lives: how can one live a life without transcendence, without heroism, without the fantastic events which only rarely befall a nation, or an individual? There is a gap, a dissonance, in our lives; between life as we may, at some heroic moment, have lived it, or as it may have been lived in some distant heroic past, or in some half-imagined future, and life as we actually experience it on a day to day basis--taking out the garbage, fighting with our parents, fighting with our kids, studying for tests, changing diapers, going to the bank, paying bills.

Very few human beings live lives of intensely heroic activity. And yet, we long for a life that is heroic, transcendent, full of ultimate meaning. We want such a life, we need such experiences.

In the laws of Parashat Mishpatim we close this gap, we harmonize this dissonance. The Torah gives us the opportunity to recreate, through our own actions, some of the heroic events of Exodus. If God redeemed us in Egypt, Jewish law challenges us to be redeemers, and shows us how to be that. If God lifted up the downtrodden Jewish slaves, the Jewish laws of charity demand of us that we approximate God's behavior, and show us how to do that. We are commanded to evolve from readers of someone else's story, into actors, heroes, in a real-life drama, in which we can, again and again, on a day-to-day basis, experience the dramatic narrative of exile and redemption, by acting upon the moral-ethical principles of Mishpatim.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.