Tags: Babylonian exile, Golden Calf, mishkan, Psalm 74, sanctuary, temple, torah portion
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Where does God live?
The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth. The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai. God tells him:
They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay. (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place, home. (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)
Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again. So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants. Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2
After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3 In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.
Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4
King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.) This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.
Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).
Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?
Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.
Remember Your community You acquired long ago!
You redeemed the tribe of your possession.
Mount Zion is where shakhanta. (Psalm 74:1-2)
shakhanta (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)
The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.
They set Your holy place on fire;
They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name. (Psalm 74:7)
Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.
Why do you draw back Your right hand,
Holding it in Your bosom? (Psalm 74:11)
The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back. And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.
Look to the covenant! (Psalm 74:20)
If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.
Let the poor and the needy praise Your name! (Psalm 74:21)
In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst. Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.
Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.
Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.
Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.
Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States. Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.
I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts. May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend. And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.
Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!
1 Exodus 32:1-5.
2 Exodus 32:35: Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.
3 Exodus 40:33-34: When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.
4 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
Tags: haftarah, holy place, King Solomon, Shalom, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 5:26-6:13.
To rule as a king, one needs administrators, a standing army, and a capital city. And in the Ancient Near East, the capital had to have a temple for the chief god of the kingdom.
When David conquers Jerusalem (in the first book of Samuel) to be the capital of his new kingdom, he brings in the two objects that are the most sacred to the Israelites: the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. But he leaves the temple-building to his son and heir, Solomon.
King Solomon has stone quarries and can command his citizens to do forced labor. But Israel has neither tall timber nor craftsmen skilled with wood. So he makes a pact with Chiram, king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre.
And it happened: Chiram gave to Shlomoh cedar and cypress wood, all he wanted. And Shlomoh gave to Chiram 20,000 kor of wheat for his household and 20 kor of beaten oil. This Shlomoh gave to Chiram year after year. And God had given wisdom to Shlomoh, as [God] had spoken to him. [There was] shalom between Chiram and Shlomoh, and the two of them cut a covenant. (1 Kings 5:24-26)
Shlomoh (שְׁלֹֹמֹה) = Solomon in English, Suleyman in Arabic. (From the root verb shilam (שִׁלָם) = complete; make amends, repay, fulfill; restore to wholeness.)
Shalom (שָׁלֹם) = peace, wholeness, intactness, well-being. (Also from the root shilam.)
In the tenth century B.C.E., the time of Shlomoh and Chiram, there were two kinds of treaties between kingdoms in the Near East. In one model, the weaker kingdom was a vassal of the stronger one, and paid tribute to it (see my post Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies). In the other, two equal kingdoms made a treaty or covenant for trade and mutual defense.
The treaty between King Shlomoh of Israel and King Chiram of Tyre specified that Tyre would provide wood for all of Shlomoh’s building projects in Jerusalem, and Israel would provide annual large shipments of wheat and oil to Tyre. Although the Bible does not mention a clause about mutual defense, it does state that there was shalom between the two kings, which implies that they at least agreed to mutual non-aggression.
And the king, Shlomoh, imposed a mas upon all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. And he sent 10,000 a month to Lebanon; following a month in Lebanon they were two months at home, in turns… And Shlomoh had 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 quarriers in the hills … The king commanded, and they pulled out great stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation-wall of the House: hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:27-31)
mas (מַס) = conscription for forced labor.
The first mas described in the Bible is the forced labor of the Israelites in Egypt. Although it was an accepted practice for a king to impose a temporary mas on his own citizens, in this case Shlomoh made 180,000 Israelites neglect their own land to do heavy labor for years. They had to cut and haul materials for the temple, for King Shlomoh’s palace, and for several other large new buildings in Jerusalem.
The text also emphasizes that the stones for the foundation wall of the temple are hewn: huge blocks of stone cut out and smoothed.
And when the House was built, it was built of shleimah stone, quarry stone; but hammers or the axe, any tool of iron, was not heard in the House when it was built. (1 Kings 6:7)
shleimah (שְׁלֵמָה) = complete, whole, uninjured, undivided, peaceable. (Plural: shleimot.)
The king wants to avoid the sound of an iron tool on the site of the new temple because of an old law about altars:
If you make an altar of stones for Me, you must not build it of hewn stones; if you have wielded your sword upon it, you have profaned it. (Exodus 20:22)
And you shall build there an altar for God, your god, an altar of stones; you must not wield iron upon them. You must build the altar for God, your god, of shleimot stones. (Deuteronomy 27:5-6)
King Shlomoh’s laborers are building the foundation-wall of the temple, not an altar. However, the temple will enclose a space even more sacred than the altar. So the king orders the stones to be cut at the quarry, and merely set in place at the temple site. Shlomoh’s attempt to follow the law may actually subvert it, since the stones are hewn.
Similarly, Shlomoh’s treaty with Chiram of Tyre has two purposes: to promote shalom, peace, between the two kingdoms, and also to build a temple that will unite the Israelites under a single god at a single holy place so they will be shaleim, intact, one people. Instead the annual wheat and oil shipments to Tyre become a burden on the farming population. And the mas imposed on so many Israelite men results in complaints and rebellion. Shortly after King Shlomoh’s death, northern Israel secedes from southern Judah. (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)
Are the stones of the temple wall really shleimot, whole and undivided, when they are cut out of the quarry with hammers and shaped with axes?
Does Shlomoh’s kingdom really live in shalom, peace and wholeness, when building a temple in Jerusalem leads to oppression, revolt, and secession?
Tags: Exodus, holy of holies, holy place, mishkan, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
How do you make a holy sanctuary, a place where God can manifest and be heard? God gives Moses instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”). The instructions require the creation of both ritual objects (the ark, the bread-table, the lampstand, the outer altar) and the creation of ritual spaces through curtains.
The Torah uses five different words for curtains in Terumah. The name of each curtain depends on its position in a sanctuary designed so that the holier and more exclusive the space is, the more it is covered and screened off.
The outer courtyard of the sanctuary is accessible to all the people, walled off by curtains but open to the sky. It measures 50 by 100 cubits (roughly 75 by 150 feet, slightly smaller than an Olympic swimming pool). Inside the courtyard stands a tent sanctuary, called the “tabernacle” in English (from the Latin word for “tent”), and the mishkan, or “Dwelling-Place” for God in Hebrew. Only priests may enter the mishkan.
The innermost (western) chamber of the mishkan is the Holy of Holies. Only Moses and the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God manifests as a voice above the ark and between the two keruvim, winged creatures hammered out of the two ends of the ark’s gold lid.
You shall make a courtyard for the mishkan; for the south side, kela-im for the courtyard of twisted linen, 100 cubits long for one side. …And thus for the north side, kela-im a hundred long…(Exodus 27:9, 11)
kela-im (קְלָעִים) = curtains, hangings. (From a root verb (קלע) meaning either “slung”, as from a slingshot, or “carved”.)
The word kela-im occurs 16 times in the Bible, 15 times to indicate the linen hangings around the outer courtyard of the portable sanctuary, and once to indicate the carved double door into the great hall of the first temple in Jerusalem.
The kela-im in this week’s Torah portion are made of a single material, twisted linen threads, undyed and therefore an off-white. The kela-im separate the outer courtyard, where all the people can gather around the altar, from the rest of the world. They are the boundary between holy space and mundane space.
There is one entrance into the courtyard, a 20-foot gateway in the east wall covered by a hanging curtain.
And for a gate of the courtyard, a masakh of 20 cubits of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer, with four posts and four sockets. (Exodus 27:16)
masakh (מָסָךְ) = hanging curtain across a doorway, portiere. (From the root word sakhakh (סכך)= block off.)
A masakh also hangs in the doorway of the mishkan, the tent inside the courtyard.
You shall make a masakh for the entrance of the tent, of sky-blue wood and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Exodus 26:36)
There is only one doorway into the tent, an opening in the east wall. The curtain screening this doorway between the outer courtyard and the inner priest’s chamber has a different name.
Both of these curtains separate a less holy space from a more holy space, and both hang loose so they can be pushed aside when someone enters or exits. They are both woven from linen, like the walls of the courtyard, but a design is embroidered on them in three vivid colors of wool.
The word masakh appears 25 times in the Bible, all but three times referring to the hangings in the courtyard gate or the mishkan doorway. In the three exceptions, the word masakh is used for the cloth cover over a cistern (2 Samuel 17:19), for the metaphorical gateway to the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 22:8), and for the cloud God spread over the Israelites when they left Egypt (Psalm 105:39).
The walls of the mishkan are made of another type of curtain.
And the Dwelling-Place you shall make of ten yeriyot of twisted linen and sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool, with keruvim of weaving-work you shall make them. The length of each yeriyah is 28 cubits, and the width four cubits, one measure for all the yeriyot. (Exodus/Shemot 26:1-2)
yeriyah (יְרִיעָה), plural yeriyot (יְרִיעֹת) = curtain, panel of tent-cloth, tapestry.
keruvim (כְּרֻוִים) = sphinx-like creatures with lion bodies, eagle wings, and human faces.
Each yeriyah is four cubits (about six feet) wide—which was the standard width of an Egyptian loom. The linen and three colors of wool are all woven together into a tapestry with a design of mythical semi-divine creatures.
A few verses later, God tells Moses:
You shall make yeriyot of goat-hair for a tent-roof over the mishkan; eleven yeriyot you shall make. (Exodus 26:7)
Moses fastens together these tent-cloth panels into a ceiling for the tent-sanctuary. They are not as beautiful as the ones forming the walls, but they also face the holy space of the inner enclosure.
The word yeriyah appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all but three of those occurrences refer to the yeriyot of the mishkan or of the first temple in Jerusalem. The three exceptions are all poetic. Jeremiah 49:29 and Habakkuk 3:7 use yeriyot as a poetic synonym for tents. Psalm 104 describes God as “wrapping light like a robe, spreading out the heavens like a yeriyah”. (Psalm 104:2)
The ceiling of yeriyot woven from goat-hair must be covered with another layer of roofing: a curtain of hides sewn together.
You shall make a mikhseh for the tent of skins of rams dyed red, and a mikhseh of skins of tachashim over above. (Exodus 26:14)
mikhseh (מִכְסֶה) = curtain, covering. (From the root word kasah (כּסה) = cover, conceal.)
tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים) = (Nobody knows what this word means; speculations range from badgers to giraffes to dolphins.)
The word mikhseh occurs in the Bible thirteen times, twelve times as the outer layer of the roof over the tent-sanctuary, and once as the roof over Noah’s ark. It serves as a sort of waterproof tarpaulin, covering and protecting the tent-cloth ceiling underneath.
The fifth kind of curtain in the sanctuary is the partition that screens off the Holy of Holies from the priests’ chamber inside the mishkan.
You shall make a parokhet of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the making of a weaver; it will be made with keruvim. (Exodus 26:31)
And you shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks; and you shall bring in there, into the house for the parokhet, the Ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet will make a separation for you between the Holy [space] and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)
parokhet (פָּרֹכֶת) = curtain, woven partition. (The word is related to the Assyrian parraku = a chamber or shrine that is shut off.)
The word parokhet occurs 25 times in the Bible, always in reference to the partition screening off the Holy of Holies.
The parokhet is woven of the same materials, with the same motif, as the walls of the mishkan. But it hangs so that Moses, Aaron, or the high priest after Aaron, can push it aside to enter the Holy of Holies and speak with God.
By using five different words for curtains, the Torah portion Terumah emphasizes the importance of the different levels of holiness of each space that is partitioned, blocked from view, or protected.
I think people also have zones of intimacy, each protected by its own barrier. To the outer world of strangers, we present a face like the blank white kela-im of the outer courtyard, without any designs or colors showing—except in the gateway, where our bland, socially acceptable surface is embroidered with a colored design indicating what our personalities might be like inside.
When we make friends, we admit them through the gate into our outer courtyard, where they can see the sanctuary protecting our true selves. Our friends get a glimpse of our own vivid colors, and the mythological animals that indicate our particular life stories. But our inner self is still hidden and protected by yeriyot panels and by a mikhseh, a roof covering we hope is disaster-proof.
Some people have never been inside the tent of their inner selves; they live only according to social roles and expectations, and find self-examination difficult. Others discover they have an inner priest who can enter the inner self and see what is inside. There, besides working with their own lamps and bread tables, they see the parokhet that screens off the Holy of Holies, where God might speak to them.
These self-explorers might invite one or two people into the priestly level of intimacy. But only the individual can walk through the parokhet and see their own ark, and the keruvim that inspired all their woven and embroidered designs. Only an individual can see the empty space where the voice of God might manifest.
Some individuals would prefer never to enter their own Holy of Holies, never to risk hearing a voice that comes from a deep place beyond the knowable self.
How intimate do you want to become with yourself? With God? Which curtains will you pass through, and which will block your passage?
Tags: Exodus, King Solomon, Moses, Shemot, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion
A 2,000-year-old tradition pairs every weekly Torah portion with a haftarah, a reading from the Prophets/Neviim. In this week’s Torah reading, Terumah (“Donations”), God gives Moses instructions for building a sanctuary. This week’s haftarah is a passage from the first book of Kings about how King Solomon begins building the temple in Jerusalem.
The sanctuary and the temple both contain the ark, menorah, bread table, and incense altar. Both are places where priests perform the rituals prescribed in the Torah. But there are dramatic differences between the two structures.
For one thing, the building materials dictate whether each holy structure is portable or stationary. The Torah portion Terumah specifies that the walls of the mishkan will be made out of woven pieces of cloth hung on a framework of gilded acacia planks and beams.
And you shall make the mishkan of ten panels of fabric, made of fine twisted linen, and sky-blue dye and red-violet dye and scarlet dye …(Exodus/Shemot 26:1)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place for God. (The word is used for the portable tent-like sanctuary created in the book of Exodus and used until the second book of Samuel.)
Next God tells Moses to make the roof out of woven goat-hair, and cover it with tanned hides. The mishkan would look like a huge tent of vividly-colored cloth, its framework resting directly on the earth. After it has been built, the Torah often calls this sanctuary the “Tent of Appointed Meeting”.
The courtyard in front of it, containing the altar for burning animal offerings, is to be enclosed by another wall of linen cloth, this one roofless. I can imagine the cloth walls of both the courtyard and the tent glowing in the sunlight, and the gold, silver, and bronze fittings gleaming. The structure would be beautiful, but also obviously portable, easy to disassemble and move to the next location.
While the mishkan is temporary, Solomon’s temple is built to last.
The king commanded, and they quarried huge stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation of the house with hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:31)
On this foundation, the “house” is built out of more large squared stones, then paneled inside with cedar wood, and roofed with cedar planks. Additional rooms are built against the outside walls, all the way around. The temple is three stories high, with stairs and narrow latticed windows. This sanctuary could never be disassembled and moved. It is supposed to be permanent. According to the Hebrew bible, it lasted for four centuries, until the Babylonian invaders destroyed it. During that time, the central place of worship for the southern kingdom remained fixed in the capital, Jerusalem.
Another important difference between the tent and the temple is how the materials and labor to build them were obtained. The materials for the tent—textiles, hides, wood, and metals—are all gifts volunteered by the Israelites. This week’s Torah portion opens with God asking for only voluntary donations.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take for me a donation from every man whose heart urges him; [from him] you shall take My donation. And this is the donation that you shall take from them: gold or silver or bronze, or sky-blue or red-violet or scarlet dyes, or linen or goat hair, or hides… (Exodus/Shemot 25:1-5)
But the stone and cedar for Solomon’s temple are purchased from a foreign king, Hiram of Lebanon. This week’s haftarah opens:
God had given wisdom to Solomon, as [God] promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them cut a treaty. (1 Kings/Malchim 5:26)
Just before this verse, the first book of Kings describes the deal between Hiram and Solomon: Hiram will provide timber and stone for Jerusalem, and in exchange Solomon will pay Hiram in annual shipments of wheat and oil—shipments that would require a heavy tax on Israel’s farmers.
In the book of Exodus, both women and men enthusiastically volunteer to do the weaving, carpentry, and metal-working for the tent sanctuary. In the first book of Kings, Solomon imposes forced labor on the Israelite men to do the logging and quarrying.
And King Solomon raised a mas from all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in turns; they were in Lebanon for a month, two months at home. And Solomon loaned 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 stone-cutters on the mountain. (1 Kings 5:28-29)
mas (מַס) = compulsory labor, corvée labor, levy
Compulsory labor, mas, is what the pharaoh imposed on the Israelites in Egypt—the slavery that God and Moses freed them from. King Solomon gets away with his temporary mas, but later in Kings, his son Rechavam imposes an even heavier “yoke” on his people, and they revolt against him.
So while the mishkan is constructed with voluntary gifts and voluntary labor, the temple is built through agricultural taxes and forced labor.
In the Torah portion, Moses gets instructions for making a sanctuary from God Itself. In the haftarah, Solomon remembers his father David’s desire to build a temple, and after he has built a palace for himself, he starts the temple on his own initiative.
In both cases, God makes a conditional promise to dwell among the Israelites. In the Torah portion, God will stay with them if they make a place for God:
And they shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)
But in the haftarah, God will stay with the Israelites if King Solomon follows the rules:
And the word of God came to Solomon, saying: This house that you are building—if you follow my decrees and you do my laws and you observe all my commandments, to go by them, then I will establish my word with you that I spoke to David, your father: then I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I will not desert my people Israel. (1 Kings 6:12-13)
The differences between the mishkan and the temple imply two different approaches to religion. The sanctuary God describes to Moses belongs to the people; they make it voluntarily, they move it with them wherever they go, and God dwells among them because they make a holy place for God.
The temple of Solomon belongs to the king; he oppresses his own people in order to procure the materials and labor, he fixes it permanently in Jerusalem, and God dwells among his people because King Solomon obeys God’s rules.
I believe the tent-sanctuary described in the Torah portion represents the ideal approach to communal religion, in which everyone in the community contributes enthusiasm, support, or creativity; in which textual interpretations and rituals are flexible enough to move and change along with the people; and in which everyone makes a holy place for God.
Yet this ideal cannot always be realized. There are times everyone, including me, is too exhausted or too stuck to manage creative communal worship. Sometimes we just need a place to go where the rituals will be fixed and familiar, and where a trusted authority figure is taking care of everything and telling us what to do.
We need both tents and temples.
Why does God need a dinner table?
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Donations), God orders a Moses to make a table, and tells him how to set it. The table is just one piece of furniture God requests during Moses’s first 40-day stay at the top of Mount Sinai. God also wants the children of Israel to make a lamp, an incense burner, and an ark, and a tent to put them in.
They shall make a mikdash for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)
mikdash (מִקְדָּשׁ) = sanctuary, holy-place
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place
God calls for the sanctuary to be divided into three zones of holiness. All Israelite men can enter the outer courtyard, which will be unroofed but enclosed by curtains. This is where animal sacrifices will be burned at the altar. Inside this courtyard Moses will erect a tent divided into two rooms. The first room, called the Holy, is reserved for the priests. The innermost room, screened off by a curtain, is the Holy of Holies, a small enclosure for the ark (see my post “Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day”). Only Moses, and the high priest once a year, can enter the Holy of Holies.
But priests will be walking into the room of intermediate holiness every day. God requests three pieces of furniture for this room: a gold incense altar, a gold lampstand or menorah (see my post “Terumah: Waking Up”), and a small gold-plated table.
You shall make a table of acacia wood, its length a pair of cubits, its width a cubit, and its height a cubit and a half. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, and you shall make a molding of gold for it, all around. (Exodus/Shemot 25:23-28)
The flames of the lamps and the smoke of the incense are intangible, so they make natural reminders of intangibles such as enlightenment, the soul, God. But the table does not produce anything intangible. After giving more specifications for the design of the table, God orders Moses to lay out a place setting and some bread—as if God were going to sit down and eat.
And you shall make its bowls and its scoops and its jars and its chalices for pouring out [libations]; of pure gold you shall make them. And you shall place upon the table bread of panim, lefanai continually. (Exodus 25:30)
panim (פָּנִים) = faces, face, expression of feelings, surface, front, presence
lefanai (לְפָנַי) = facing me, in front of me, before my presence
Although some translations still call this bread “shewbread”, following the King James Bible, a more accurate translation would be “Bread of Faces”. We learn in the next book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, that twelve loaves of bread are stacked on this table at all times, replaced once a week on Shabbat with newly baked loaves.
The Israelites knew that other religious cults in the region set food in front of an idol so that the essence of the god inhabiting the idol could eat the essence of the food in front of it. But the Torah clearly states that when the old loaves are removed once a week in the God of Israel’s sanctuary, the priests eat them (Leviticus 24:9). So why does God need a dinner table?
I believe the point of the table appears in the sentence I would translate as “And you shall place upon the table Bread of Faces, facing Me continually”. In the Torah, bread represents all food, which is a gift from God. Yet since humans need to actively intervene to change grain into bread, I think bread can also symbolize the creative effort humanity puts into the material world. Twelve loaves of bread represent everyone in the twelve tribes of Israel. Symbolically, the Israelites are faces of bread, facing God continually.
No wonder God orders a table set with bread. It is not enough to approach God through the mysterious dazzlement of flames and smoke, the overwhelming feeling of mystical experience. We must also approach God through our everyday, solid, material lives, setting ourselves out on the table and facing God continually.
This is a difficult goal to achieve. How can we face a god we cannot see?
In ancient times the mishkan, and later the temples, provided holy rooms to serve as God’s “dwelling place”, and the place for human priests to enact rituals to orient the people toward God. Today, we build sanctuaries where everyone can come and pray and enact rituals in order to orient themselves toward the divine.
The ritual space, with its furniture, helps. Nevertheless, I am sometimes so distracted during a service in a sanctuary that I forget to try to face God. It is even harder to keep trying to face God during the week, as I deal with all the material things in my life. It is a tall order, but a good one, when the Torah says:
You shall place upon the table bread of faces, facing Me continually.
The Torah portion Terumah (raised donations) begins with God telling Moses to ask everyone whose heart is so moved to donate materials to make a sanctuary: three kinds of metals, three colors of expensive dye, linen, wool, two kinds of hides, wood, oil, incense spices, and gems. Then God says:
They shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. (Exodus/Shemot 25:8)
mikdash (מִקְדָּשׁ) = sanctuary, holy-place
God has already promised to be the god of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers. But, as we see in the golden calf incident two Torah portions later, the Israelites cannot believe God is still with them without some visual aid. God refuses to inhabit a golden cow statue, but the people will be reassured by the sight of the sanctuary.
The list of materials for this sanctuary begins:
And this is the raised donation that you will take from them: gold, and silver, and copper. (Exodus 25:3)
zahav = gold
kesef = silver; the common currency in the Middle East
nechoshet = copper, brass, bronze; from the same root as nachash = snake, serpent; divination, magic
We know why the Israelites had gold and silver to donate. After the final plague in Egypt, they followed God’s order to “ask” their Egyptian neighbors for silver items, gold items, and clothing. The Egyptians complied.
Besides using silver and gold for ornamental vessels and jewelry, Egyptians and other peoples in the Middle East made idols (statues for gods to inhabit) out of precious metals. That is why, after the revelation at Mount Sinai, God says:
With me, do not make gods of silver or gods of gold; you shall not make them for yourselves. (Exodus/Shemot 20:20)
Accustomed to thinking of gold as the metal of highest status, the Israelites would feel reassured that their donated gold would go into all the holy objects in the inner chamber of the sanctuary: the lamp-stand, the table, the incense altar, and the ark itself. Silver was less precious, so it is not surprising that God tells Moses to use silver for the sockets in the framework around the inner chamber. This framework supports the curtains and tent-roof, and is made of wood planks plated with gold.
The use of gold and silver reinforces the high status and the holiness of the sanctuary’s inner chamber of the sanctuary. I think the requirement that these two metals be donated also has a psychological value. After all, the people know that the gold and silver does not really belong to them; the Egyptians gave the objects to them when they were desperate to end the plagues. And the gold is also a reminder of the golden calf. Donating their gold and silver for God’s sanctuary would relieve the people’s guilt on both counts.
Once the inner chamber of the sanctuary is assembled, the people see only its outer walls—the gorgeous curtains fastened to the gold-plated planks that are fitted into silver sockets. Only priests are allowed into the area with the incense altar, table, and lamp-stand, and only Moses and the high priest, Aaron, can enter the innermost Holy of Holies, where the ark is concealed. But everyone knows that God manifests and speaks in the empty space above the ark.
Another area of the sanctuary is open to every Israelite: the outer courtyard, which contains the altar for animal sacrifices. This altar, and all its tools, are made out of copper or bronze.
Where does the copper come from? The Israelites only took silver, gold, and clothing from the Egyptians. The word for copper, nechoshet, appears only once before this in the Torah: the list of Cain’s descendants includes Tuval-Kayin, who made cutting tools out of copper and iron.
The book of Exodus is set in a historical period when the Bronze Age is ending, and iron is just beginning to come into use. Bronze, an alloy of copper and zinc, was the most common metal for tools and blades. It was also the most common metal for making mirrors, since bronze reflects well when it is polished. And mirror-like surfaces have long been used for divination, the type of magic practiced by people who want to see the future. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for copper or bronze, nechoshet, comes from the root word nachash, which means both “divination” and “snake”.
The snake in the garden of Eden is a nachash. Its role is to arouse a desire in Eve for a different kind of knowledge, the knowledge that God has. Only after her conversation with the snake does she taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
When Moses first demonstrates God’s power to Pharaoh, his staff turns into a nachash. He is trying to give Pharaoh knowledge about God, though Pharaoh is too defensive to pay attention. Pharaoh’s magicians turn their own staffs into crocodiles, but Moses’ snake eats them. (Later, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses halts a plague of poisonous snakes, nechashim, with a bronze snake on a pole, a nechash nechoshet.)
In the book of Genesis, both Lavan and Joseph claim to practice nachash, divination, when they are trying to impress their troublesome relatives. In Deuteronomy/Devarim, God warns the Israelites not to practice divination, or any other kind of magic. One must not try to force information out of God.
Traditional Jewish commentary explains that the altar in the courtyard of God’s sanctuary is made of copper or bronze because it is a third-rate metal, less valuable than gold or silver but good enough for the area that is merely holy, not the Holy of Holies. Another explanation might be that the tools for the altar had to be bronze, so they would hold an edge, and it seemed appropriate to make the altar itself out of the same metal.
Or maybe the Israelites needed to surrender not only the silver and gold they took from the Egyptians, but also their own snakiness, their own desire for divination and divine knowledge.
Maybe even today, we need to give up the idea that we can predict and control the future. Can we accept that we are not gods, and we cannot make our own gods? Can we resist the promise of magic? Can we donate what knowledge we have, all our copper and all our serpentine wisdom, to building a sanctuary for the whole world? If we can, then maybe God will dwell among us.
(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2010.)
And you will make two keruvim of gold; you will make them hammered out of the two ends of the kaporet. You will make one keruv at one end, and one keruv at the other end; from the atonement-cover you will make the keruvim, on both of its ends. And the keruvim will be spreading their wings upward, sheltering the kaporet with their wings; and their faces will be turned one another; the faces of the keruvim will be turned toward the atonement-cover. (Exodus/Shemot 25:18-20)
keruv (כֱרוּב), plural keruvim = (cherub in English) = a winged hybrid beast, usually with a human head and an animal body.
kaporet (כַּפֹּרֱת) = reconciliation, atonement; atonement-cover; the gold lid on the ark
Two stone lions, or lion-like beasts, crouch on either side of the main entrance to a library, a civic building, a mansion; they face the person who approaches, looking stern and regal. We’ve all seen them; architects used them for centuries, the world over, to make entrances more impressive.
In ancient Assyria, the colossal statues on either side of an entrance were hybrid winged beasts called kuribu in Akkadian. Scholars say the word is related to both the Akkadian word karabu, “to pronounce formulas of blessing”, and the Hebrew word keruv.
Now imagine two winged beasts facing one another, guarding neither a city gate nor a door into a building, but a portal into another world, another reality. Science fiction? No, Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations “), God tells Moshe how to construct the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Inside the inner curtained-off chamber, the Holy of Holies, will be the ark holding the tablets of the covenant. The lid of the ark will be a pure gold atonement-cover. The two ends of this golden lid will be hammered into gold sculptures of keruvim. When the sanctuary is finished, God will speak to Moshe from the empty space above the cover, between the two keruvim.
This is neither the first nor the last place where the Torah mentions winged guardian figures called keruvim. When the first two human beings are banished from the Garden of Eden, God “made the keruvim dwell in front of (or east of) the garden of Eden, and the flame of the sword of the mit-hapechet, to watch over the way to the Tree of Life.” (Genesis 3:24)
mit-hapechet (מִתְהַפֶּכֶת) = revolving, quivering, flashing, continually transforming
When the ark is carried into battle against the Philistines, it is referred to as “the ark of the covenant of the God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim.” (I Samuel 4:4) When King Solomon builds a permanent temple, he places two colossal gilded keruvim in the innermost chamber. Their anatomy is not described, but their wings touch in the center of the room. (I Kings 6:23-27) Keruvim are also used as a decorative motif in the temple walls, as they are in the woven curtains around the inner chamber of the portable sanctuary.
The four mysterious hybrid creatures in vision of the prophet Ezekiel are also called keruvim. They probably do not look exactly like the keruvim over the ark, but they are also hybrid creatures. Ezekiel’s keruvim have four wings each, human hands, calves’ hoofs, and four faces each (human, lion, ox, and eagle). The throne where God’s glory appears is above them. (Ezekiel 1:4-12 and 10:1-21)
Psalm 18 paints a metaphorical picture of God descending from the heavens to rescue King David from his enemies, and includes the line: “He rode on a keruv and He flew; And He soared on wings of ruach (wind or spirit).” This couplet borrows an image from a Canaanite religion in which the sky god’s steed was a winged beast.
What do all these references to keruvim mean? If we look behind the descriptive details, keruvim seem to define a location for the appearance of God’s glory, or presence, or Shechinah—whether the location is between them, as in this week’s Torah portion, or above them, as in Ezekiel and Psalm 18, or behind them, as in Genesis.
Keruvim combine the traits of many animals, including humans, and thus represent the more sentient part of the world God creates. Yet they are supernatural, existing somewhere between our reality and the transcendence of God. Therefore they mark the dividing line between our world and the divine world we can neither enter nor understand.
Yet in Torah this dividing line is not a wall, but a gateway. As long as we live in this world we cannot pass through the gate. But we can imagine the entrance to the Garden of Eden. And we can imagine God speaking to Moshe through the empty space between the keruvim above the ark, even if we can never enter the Holy of Holies ourselves.
One effect of this invisible portal to another reality, this gap in our universe, is that human beings feel a yearning that can never be satisfied by the things of this world. The yearning keeps us searching—for love, for beauty, for the good, for the divine. That is what it means to be human.
Maybe Adam and his counterpart Eve (Chava), are not really human until they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Only then can they feel yearning.
Today we human beings still yearn for the ineffable. And we are still responsible for using the passion of our yearning to make tikkun olam, to help make the world we live in more like the world we yearn for.
(This blog was first posted on January 30, 2011.)
You will make a lamp-stand (menorah) of pure gold; they will be made from hammered-work: the lamp-stand, its trunk, its stalk, its cups, its drupes, and its flowers. And six stems emerging from its side, three lamp-stems from one side and three lamp-stems from the second side. Three cups like (bud cases of) almonds; on each almond-like stem a drupe and a flower; thus for the six stems emerging from the lamp-stand. And on the lamp-stand, four cup ornaments like those of almond trees, its drupes, and its flowers. (Exodus/Shemot 25:31-34)
And you will make its lamps seven, and it will elevate its lamps and shine over the space in front of it. (Exodus/Shemot 25:37)
meshukadim = like almonds; those who have become awake, alert, attentive
The almond trees are blooming now in Israel. They’re the first trees to “wake up”, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“donations”), describes a lamp-stand or menorah in terms of an almond tree. God is speaking to Moses on top of Mount Sinai, describing the items to be made for the inner precinct of the sanctuary: to the east, the ark in its own curtained enclosure (the Holy of Holies); to the north, a gold-covered table to hold twelve loaves of bread; and to the south, the lamp-stand.
Ancient commentary says that the Moses could not visualize the lamp-stand from the description, so God had to show him a fiery model of it. We can imagine it as a flat or espaliered tree. The term used for the tree trunk is ambiguous:
yerechah = thigh, bottom; a euphemism for genitals; “base” only in traditional English translations of Exodus 25:31. The word implies a generative source, but given the shape of a human thigh and the insistence in the Torah passage that the lamp-stand is like an almond tree, I translate the word as “trunk”.
Three branches come out of the left side of the tree trunk, and three out of the right side. The six branches and the central trunk (which tapers to the size of a stalk) are ornamented with flowers, cups like opened bud-cases, and knobs like almond drupes. The Hebrew word I translate as “drupe” is also ambiguous:
kaftor = ornament in the style of Kaftor (home island of the Philistines); knob, bulb, small fruit.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi and etymologist, argued that the kaftor represents the swelling inside a flower where seeds grow, the part that becomes a pod, nut, or fruit. The “fruit” of an almond tree is a drupe, like a peach or plum (though an almond drupe has no flesh between the outer skin and the woody pit surrounding its single seed). Since the knobs on the lamp-stand are modeled after almond trees, I translate the word kaftor as drupe.
The branches and the central stalk of the lamp-stand all terminate in oil lamps. There are seven lamps across the top, three lamps on either side of a central lamp. (Why seven? I’ll take up that question in five weeks, when the Torah portion Vayhakheil (“and he assembled”) describes the actual manufacture of the sacred objects.)
Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure, solid gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than about six feet, which is the height mentioned in the Talmud. That makes it the size of a human being. (The Arch of Titus in Rome bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying amenorah somewhat shorter than they are. We don’t know if themenorah taken out of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. was the same height as the original menorah.)
Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly. But a lamp does not just float in the air; it must be supported by something. The lamp-stand prescribed by the Torah is a ritual object full of symbolism. Perhaps it is hammered out of pure gold to indicate that we can only receive divine light when we have purified our hearts, our minds. Gold, the most holy metal in the sanctuary, is the color of fire, and fire is associated with God throughout the Torah.
The lamp-stand is human-sized because it is our job to receive and spread enlightenment. Being constructed like a tree, it reflects the Tree of Life in the garden of Eden, and also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. After all, enlightenment is a taste of deep knowledge.
But why does the lamp-stand take its design from an almond tree? I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “like/from almonds” and “those who have become awake and attentive”. Almond trees flower early, before winter is over, before anything else blooms. Even in the coldest, most dead time of year, life awakens and blooms. The human desire for knowledge and for God keeps rising like sap, and blooming before you expect it.
On a less physical level, being meshukadim makes the lamp-stand a symbol of wakefulness, alertness, and diligent attention. We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making routine assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions. Yet when we do pay close attention to the shadowy depths of our own minds, we discover more and more meanings beneath the surface. By studying and paying attention to wise teachings, and by being alert to our intuitions and our own inner connections that generate meaning, we create an inner lamp-stand. Then we are ready to receive divine light—inspiration—enlightenment.
This week’s Torah portion indicates that before God’s presence will dwell among the people, they must prepare themselves by making the ark to hold the covenant (probably the ten commandments), the table for the bread, and the lamp-stand for light. In other words, if we want to connect with the divine, we must first make a commitment to following ethical and spiritual rules, set up our lives so that our bodies will be nourished, and hammer out a psychological structure that will support enlightenment.