Creating Sacred Space

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

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The mode by which Solomon carried out the construction of his Temple stands in stark contrast. The proportions of the project seemed to savage the idealism that brought the Tabernacle to fruition. There is no trace of voluntarism in Solomon's financing scheme. To pay for the cedar and cypress wood provided by the King of Tyre and to quarry and transport the building materials, Solomon took recourse to a massive levy. Our haftarah relates:"King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month...Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers in the hills, apart from Solomon's 3,300 officials who were in charge of the work" (I Kings 5:27-30). In short, participation was not tendered freely but harshly coerced.

The difference did not escape the attention of a medieval midrash. "The Tabernacle for which the people volunteered wholeheartedly never fell victim to the evil eye. The Temple, however, for which they did not, fell victim to the hand of the enemy" (Kasher, Torah Shlemah, v.20, p. 6). Thus, the fate of an institution is determined by the measures taken to create it. A polity cannot long survive without popular support. Solomon's Temple rested on shaky ground. Not only was centralizing the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem (that is, forbidding all sacrifices outside the Temple) are volutionary step, but it also saddled the citizens of his recently united realm with heavy taxation. Little wonder that the kingdom immediately split apart after his death.

Lessons of the Tabernacle

The lasting lesson of the Tabernacle is the supreme importance of voluntarism in the conduct of the Jewish polity. The twin values of tzedakah and gemilut hasadim--of charity and deeds of lovingkindness--combined to make of voluntarism the communal ethos. In the medieval Jewish community that spirit manifested itself in a network of voluntary associations, havurot, each with its own mission, such as burying the dead, visiting the sick, promoting adult education or aiding the poor. The impulse to create an association was usually a specific mitzvah, the benefit to the individual member, a licit form of socializing and the consequence to the community, a means of meeting its multiple needs. This ethos of public service is what enabled Jews in the absence of a state to forge a polity that was almost wholly self-sufficient.

The virtue is singled out in a special prayer, misheberakh, which we recite in the synagogue right after the reading of the haftarah. We ask God to bless all those who serve the public weal, "by uniting to establish synagogues for prayer, and entering them to pray, and giving funds for heat and light, and wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, bread to the wayfarer and charity to the poor, and devoting themselves always to the needs of this community and the Land of Israel."

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

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