Creating Sacred Space

Two very different models, two very different outcomes, one very important lesson.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

This week's parashah and haftarah [reading from the Prophets] are an exercise in counterpoint. Superficially, the construction of sacred space joins them in a common theme. While the Torah portion takes up the erection of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the narrative from the book of Kings recounts the building by Solomon of the First Temple in Jerusalem some 480 years later.

The move is from a mobile sanctuary to a permanent one, from wood to stone. Still, the basic design remains the same, an oblong structure with the Holy of Holies (devir) at the rear, farthest away from the entrance. Likewise, the content of the Holy of Holies is unaltered: an ark covered by two large cherubim with outstretched wings. The ark itself contained only the two tablets which attested to the covenant between God and Israel sealed at Mount Sinai.

Of greater interest to me is what separated these two cultic centers. They enjoyed vastly different levels of popular support. Both institutions reflect God's will. In the case of Moses, the instructions are given directly, orally and visually (Exodus 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8). In the case of David, the sanction comes from God (II Samuel 7), the execution is left to Solomon. Yet the contrast could not be greater, and herein lies the value of the juxtaposition.

Helping Build the Tabernacle

The Torah highlights the fact that the people as a whole volunteer their possessions and services to build the Tabernacle. God enunciates the ideal at the outset: "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him" (25:2). By implication, should they fail to contribute, the project would be delayed, if not aborted. And later the narrative stresses their extraordinary degree of compliance. The occasion stirred both men and women to share equally and unstintingly of their valuables and handiwork for the glory of the sanctuary. Indeed, contributions flowed in at such a furious pace that word had to be issued to end the campaign (Exodus 36:5-6).

The Torah leaves little doubt that the building of the Tabernacle was a consensual enterprise. The people's enthusiastic response to Moses's call for contributions translated into action the verbal assent they had given at Mount Sinai at hearing the content of the covenant: "Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said,'All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!'" (24:7). Their faith was the wellspring of their philanthropy.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.