Embodied Beings

Dear Rabbi,
After reading this week’s parshah, Terumah, the first thing that came to my mind was one of my all time favorite movies that was an even better television show, M*A*S*H. The initials stand for Mobile Army Medical Hospital. A MASH refers to a United States Army medical unit serving as a fully functional hospital in a combat area of operations. One of its key features is found in the word “mobile” which meant that it could be moved to another area at a moment’s notice if the area it was located in became too dangerous. It was very effective in saving lives in that war time injuries could be treated quickly because the MASH unit was so close to the fighting front and many soldiers’ lives were saved as a result of this structure.

Terumah is devoted entirely to the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. The Israelites are called upon to contribute thirteen materials—gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices and gems—out of which, G‑d says to Moses at Exodus 25:8:
“And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (I will get back to this later.)

On the summit of Mount Sinai, Moses is given detailed instructions on how to construct this dwelling for G‑d so that it could be readily dismantled, transported and reassembled as the people journeyed in the desert. (This is the direct connection to the aforementioned M*A*S*H.)

The rest of the parshah reads like something out of the pages of the magazine “Popular Mechanics” as it relates to the details of how the Mishkan is to be built which can be summarized as follows:

In the Sanctuary’s inner chamber, behind an artistically woven curtain, was the ark containing the tablets of testimony engraved with the Ten Commandments; on the ark’s cover stood two winged cherubim hammered out of pure gold. In the outer chamber stood the seven-branched menorah, and the table upon which the “showbread” was arranged. (This was loaves of bread that were placed in two stacks of six each on the table in the Holy compartment of the Tabernacle and of the Temple. This offering to G-d was replaced with fresh bread on each Shabbat.)

The Sanctuary’s three walls were fitted together from 48 upright wooden boards, each of which was overlaid with gold and held up by a pair of silver foundation sockets. The roof was formed of three layers of coverings: (a) tapestries of multicolored wool and linen; (b) a covering made of goat hair; (c) a covering of ram and tachash skins. Across the front of the Sanctuary was an embroidered screen held up by five posts.

Surrounding the Sanctuary and the copper-plated altar which fronted it was an enclosure of linen hangings, supported by 60 wooden posts with silver hooks and trimmings, and reinforced by copper stakes.

The above encapsulates what went into the making of Tabernacle and the obvious question is where did the Israelites get the materials to construct it? I get the fact that the Egyptians gave them gold and silver on their way out, but were all of the different colored wool, the olive oil, spices, gems and copper, “gifts” from the Egyptians as well?

Getting back to the First Parshah and the sanctuary being built so that G-d can dwell in the Israelites’ “midst”, which can again draw a parallel to what was happening in a MASH unit where the doctors saved lives from physical wounds, here was a place where G-d could save the people in a spiritual way, However, I find something puzzling in the Second Parshah at Exodus 25:22 where G-d states as follows:

“I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark cover from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, all that I will command you unto the children of Israel.”

If G-d is dwelling in the Israelites’ “midst”, why is he only speaking to Moses and from an area above the ark? For that matter, how were later generations going to communicate directly with the All Mighty. There never was a successor to Moses in the sense of someone that was going to get his instructions directly from the Lord. How were his instructions going to be communicated? I think much of the problems as it relates to religion be it in ancient times or even today are those that think they are communicating directly with G-d and have some sort of charisma or other persuasive powers to have others follow them usually to a disastrous result. What are your thoughts on this?

I leave you with the following question. Why does the building of the tabernacle take on an entire Torah portion, where we have in Parshah Bereishit in the First Aliyah at Genesis 1:1-31 the creation of the whole world in six days as follows:

On the first day G‑d made darkness and light. On the second day He formed the heavens, dividing the "upper waters" from the "lower waters." On the third day He set the boundaries of land and sea and called forth trees and greenery from the earth. On the fourth day He fixed the position of the sun, moon and stars. Fish, birds and reptiles were created on the fifth day; land-animals, and then the human being, Adam, on the sixth. G‑d ceased work on the seventh day, and sanctified it as a day of rest.

What is more significant, the creation of the entire world or the creation of a sanctuary where G-d will dwell in our midst?


Dear Mordecai,

I love the M*A*S*H reference, for it could be developed more. How does the Tabernacle provide healing in the way that the MASH unit did?
Yes, this is the Popular Mechanics parsha.

“Where did the Israelites get the materials to construct” the Tabernacle? you ask. The first part of this you answer yourself. The second part depends on how you want to approach the Torah in terms of realia. You could suggest that they got the materials through trade with nomads and tradesmen in the desert. You could also suggest that the Tabernacle was something designed and constructed after they entered the Land. This would be a critical scholarship suggestion, not a traditional one.

Dwelling and speaking are clearly two different functions of G-d, which is why a designated place exists for speaking. The communication with G-d post-Moses comes through His Torah. By reading and studying it, G-d communicates with us.

Anyone who thinks they have a direct communication with G-d is someone to be wary of. Anyone who thinks this and also seeks a large public platform off of which to operate is positively dangerous.

I ask you: How do you address the paradox of an infinite G-d existing in a finite space, like the Tabernacle?

Even noting a parallel between the construction of the Tabernacle with the Creation of the world puts you right alongside the rabbis. But why the difference in length? I suppose because the former is a human construct and also serves as instruction. Brevity and significance are not related. You mentioned the cherubim; this is a reference to the Garden of Eden where the cherubims guarded the way back in after Adam and Eve were banished. So not only does the Tabernacle’s construction conjure up the Creation of the world, but it also conjures the Garden of Eden. These are two very powerful religious moments that the Tabernacle alludes to.  


Dear Rabbi

In answer to your first question, I will tell you something that you probably already know. I said in my direct remarks that their "spirits" were saved when they came to the Tabernacle. How many people have told you that being in the sanctuary of the JJC has given them hope after something has gone wrong in their lives? I stand at the bema during Neilah and direct congregants to stand next to the Torahs and it never ceases to amaze me the look of comfort that comes over them as they make their final "plea" for another year of life. How many souls have you touched with your advice taken from what the Torah has taught you? 

It is interesting that you are not referring to a Mishnah for an explanation of where the materials came from. I am glad that you are advocating your own theories. 

I like your explanation of how G-d "speaks" to us through the Torah. My problem is that there have been so many different explanations of what it means, it would be nice to have some direct dialogue as to the "instructions" given. I could give you an example of Kashrut but I want to save it for a parshah that deals directly with it. 

If you are asking me why I pointed out that the world was created within a few paragraphs, yet the building of the tabernacle took an entire portion to explain, I was hoping for you to go at length about the symbolism of the Tabernacle. I think if it were up to G-d, he would not need material things to use as an example of what the Lord stands for. The All Mighty was dealing with a superstitious unbelieving set of people that needed convincing to see what they were getting into. G-d thought that the miracles would prove to them that there was only one G-d and that he would protect them if they believed in what he was telling them. Maybe the intricacy of the Tabernacle was part of what G-d thought the Israelites needed to see in order to maybe look "inside" the physical magnificence of the structure and learn what the material it carried could teach them. 

I have always heard how "beautiful" our sanctuary is but how many of them realize that it is what is in the scroll that matters not the ornateness of its covering. 



Dear Mordecai, 

What you write reminds me of how good you are at connecting the parsha to our contemporary experience. Yes, I do recall how our congregants come before the Torah at Neilah and how they seem to gain a sense of comfort and strength from being in the presence of the scrolls.

You once again raise the issue of how G-d speaks to us. Your mastery of chumash is strong. Have you considered learning the Oral Torah – like the Mishnah and the Talmud? I think you could really strengthen your sense of what G-d is saying to us by studying beyond the Tanakh. That, at least, has been my experience.

The symbolism of the Tabernacle is a complicated subject. My sense is that the instructions for the Tabernacle have served as a mystical experience throughout the centuries. The instructions offer an opportunity to visualize what that holy space looked like. What I can say is that note how the instruction moves from inside to outside, beginning with the Ark and moving outward until we get to the tent itself. That seems significant and speaks to how one builds one’s own character – starting from the inner place and moving outward.

Indeed, G-d does not need material things for the sake of our worship of Him, but as embodied beings, we need material things to help us concretize. The risk, of course, is idolatry as we see with the Golden Calf. Your position sounds robustly Maimonidean. Spirit and abstraction alone should be our guide to G-d. The miracles and the Tabernacle are related in that both are about what is seen. The Israelites, however, have to learn to hear, not only to see.

The beautifying of our holy objects, including the scroll is necessary given the significance of aesthetics in the human experience.



Dear Rabbi,

It just goes to show you that to this day, we need a physical object to be able to relate. 

As to learning the "Oral Torah" maybe that is something I will look at if I chose to retire. I think by now you understand that I am not that impressed with what was stated centuries ago and for now, I am looking at the original "book" to get my inspiration and to ask you its meaning.  

As to your last comment, I gain my "significance" not from aesthetics but from what is inside the sometimes silver or gold "wrapper" or to put it another way, you cannot judge a book by its cover.