Friday, February 04, 2011

Parshat Terumah - פרשת תרומה

"וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן, עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים: אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי, קֹמָתוֹ - They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half Amot in its length, and an Amah and a half in its width, and an Amah and a half in its height."
(שמות כה:י)

The verse above dsecribes the measurements of one of the boxes* of the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark that would later house the two tablets upon which the ten commandments were inscribed. As we continue reading this week's Parsha , we read of the other holy artefacts that were also contained in the Mishkan, the sanctuary where the people of Israel would pray and come to make offerings to Hashem.

To this end, the first of the two altars used are detailed here; the one for the ritual slaughter of animals. (The other was employed for the incense offerings.) So too we learn of the Shulchan, the table upon which special "show bread" was displayed, the Menorah which perpetually lit up the sanctuary and various other decorative features such as the curtains, lace hangings and the gate. But first comes the desciption of the blueprints for the Aron Hakodesh. This might seem obvious in one way, but I contend that this is not so obvious: instead of describing this house of worship, let us imagine that we were describing our own houses. How would we first set out our plans for a house that we would like to build? We certainly wouldn't start with the oven, or a big fireplace. Even if it were a dream house, neither would we start with a swimming pool! No, we would first decribe the outer appearance, setting out the dimensions of the entire house, then we would gradually get more specific, mentioning how many rooms, what each room is. Only then would we describe the contents of the house. But here we start with the description for the building of the Aron Hakodesh. Why would the contents of the house be built while the house is not yet standing?

Rav Bachya, points out here that the Torah's importance is reflected in the name of the thing that contained it; the name of the Aron Hakodesh, written ארון הקודש in Hebrew, derives from אורה, light, for the Torah is the real source of light of the world.

Ramban explains that if we were to follow simple logic, the Aron Hakodesh would not have been built first. As it happens, so it proved to be; the Aron was not built before the house that contained it. But this raises another question - why would the order of the desciptions here differ from the order in which the holy artefacts were eventually constructed? I find Ramban's answer to be beautiful in its simplicity, yet highly significant. He responds to this question by highlighting what is really the issue here. When one builds a house, what is really important? In our cases, it is so that we may be afforded shelter from the elements and from other inconveniences. Plush furnishings, for all their worth, are not the most important thing in the house - we are! So too here, we only have a need to build a house for Hashem because there is something we are storing within it. In this passage, Moshe was not speaking so much as an architect as much as a leader and teacher. He chose to first speak about the Aron, even though when it came to it, the Aron would be built later, because the Torah was the reason for the building, and not vice versa.

In my studies in university, I have learned of the classic definition of a nation by Benedict Anderson. He describes a nation as an "imagined community," a people who would otherwise hardly know each other but are part of the communal unit that we call a nation because they believe themselves to be bound together by shared ties. Whilst this may be correct in many instances, Rav Saadia Gaon disagrees somewhat. He claims that Israel is only a nation by virtue of the Torah. Without the Torah, there would be no such thing as the Jewish nation. This is the real issue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

* There were three boxes layered within one another.

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