Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Terumah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


From Crisis to Tabernacle:

The Tabernacle in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s World

Rabbi Oren Duvdevani

Center for Basic Jewish Studies



Parashat Terumah introduces an innovative idea.   After the Holy One, blessed be He, reveals Himself to the patriarchs, and after He reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush and to the Israelites and the Egyptians on the shores of the Red Sea, and after the Israelites hear the commandment at Mount Sinai, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness” (Ex. 20:4), the Torah commands the Israelites to build a Tabernacle, a dwelling place for the Divine Presence.  Indeed, this commandment is described in language that has a measure of personification:   “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). [1]

To a large extent Parashat Terumah can be seen as a direct continuation of the events at the end of Parashat Yitro: setting up an altar at Mount Sinai after Moses had descended from the mountain where he had encountered the Divine Presence. Terumah reflects the desire to transform the one-time Revelation at Sinai into a regular and perpetual revelation and fixed abode of the Divine Presence in the Israelite camp.  Indeed, this is how Nahmanides viewed it (15:2):

The secret of the Tabernacle is that the Glory that dwelt over Mount Sinai would dwell over it covertly.  As was said (24:16), “The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai,” and also (Deut. 5:21), “The Lord our G-d has just shown us His majestic Presence.”  Likewise, with respect to the Tabernacle it says, “The Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.”  The Presence of the Lord filling the Tabernacle is mentioned twice, as against the phrase “majestic Presence.”  Thus the Presence that was revealed to them at Mount Sinai was always with Israel in the Tabernacle.   When Moses entered he would hear the Voice that communicated with him on Mount Sinai.   Just as it is said with respect to the giving of the Torah (Deut. 4:36), “From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you” … so, too, with regard to the Tabernacle, it said (Num. 7:89), “he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim” … Whoever closely examines the scriptural text regarding the giving of the Torah and understands what we have written about them will be able to understand the secret of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Ein Mukdam U-meuhar ba-Torah

Even though Nahmanides’ approach is fully consonant with the plain sense of the text and the order of the scriptural narrative, Rashi chose to follow the homiletic interpretation of the Sages, according to which the story of the Tabernacle took place later, as atonement for making the golden calf.   For example, Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed., Parashat Terumah, par. 8):

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.  When was this chapter on the Tabernacle told to Moses?  On the Day of Atonement itself, even though the parashah on the Tabernacle precedes the account of the golden calf. Rabbi Judah b. Rabbi Shalom said, Scripture is not in chronological order… So that all the nations would know that they had been granted atonement for the golden calf, and therefore it was called the Tabernacle of the Testament, since it was a testament to all who walk the earth that Holy One, blessed be He, dwells in your sanctuary.   The Holy One, blessed be He said:   let the gold used for the Tabernacle be expiation for the gold that was used in making the calf, for it is written (Ex. 32:3), “and all the people took off the gold rings,” and therefore they achieved atonement through gold:  “And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold…”   The Holy One, blessed be He, said (Jer. 30:17):  “But I will bring healing to you and cure you of your wounds.”

Following this midrash, Rashi gives the following interpretation (Ex. 31:18):

He gave Moses, etc.  There is no chronological order in [the events related in] the Torah.  The sin of the golden calf preceded the commandment to build the Tabernacle by many days, for the tablets were broken on the seventeenth of Tamuz, and on the Day of Atonement the Holy One, blessed be He, became reconciled with Israel, and on the following day donations began to be gathered for the Tabernacle, which was erected on the first of Nisan.

The statement that construction of the Tabernacle and the commandment to make a Tabernacle were a result of the sin of the golden calf seems problematic both in principle and in terms of the plain sense of the text.  So we are prompted to ask what motivated the authors of the midrash and Rashi, who followed in their lead.   In our investigation we will see that underlying their approach is a fundamental notion about the essence of the revelation of the Divine Presence to Israel.

It is well known that the words of the Torah may be sparing in one place, and copious in another.  A later attempt to establish a sanctuary is described in II Samuel.   In chapter 7 King David expresses to the prophet Nathan his desire to build a House for the Lord.   Initially Nathan responds favorably to the idea, but later he is informed of the Lord’s reservations. [2]   Not until chapter 24 do we learn that due to David’s sin in counting the people, atonement was made by offering a sacrifice on the Temple Mount, which was then the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.   Gad, the seer, commanded David:   “Go and set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Arauna the Jebusite” (II Sam. 24:18).  The fact that what is commanded here is to build an altar, and not to perform any other general act of expiation (as with Aaron in the story of Korah’s uprising [Num. 17:11-12], where he was commanded to take an incense pan and stand between the living and the dead), teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, was interested specifically that this case of sin and crisis serve as the impetus for building an altar on Mount Moriah, and the location of this altar would in due time become the location of the Lord’s sanctuary.  So it turns out that the sanctuary to the Lord on the Temple Mount arose largely due to the crisis that resulted from a sin of pride and lack of faith, just like the sin of the golden calf.  To allay the wrath of the jealous, furious, and vengeful G-d an altar was built on the very mountain, just as in the wilderness the Tabernacle was built to atone for an act of idolatry.

So we can say that the episode in which an altar was built on the Temple Mount provided the interpretive background for the Sages and for Rashi, who followed their lead, when they sought to interpret the relationship between establishment of the Tabernacle and the sin of the golden calf.   This exegetical approach expresses an incredibly bold stand:  the immanence of the Divine Presence as expressed in the words, “that I may dwell among them,” and its practical realization through construction of the Tabernacle or the Temple, results from crisis and sin.

Crisis, Distance and Isolation

Underlying this approach is a fundamental theological position regarding the relationship between human beings and the Holy One, blessed be He – an important idea underlying the notion of the Temple in general and the significance of worshipping the Lord in particular.  The basic position of human beings vis-à-vis G-d is one of crisis, distance and isolation.  Longing towards the Holy One, blessed be He, and the desire for close adherence to G-d are actually born of this sense of loneliness and distance.  It is precisely crisis that gives birth in human beings to the desire to adhere to the ever-living G-d.  This idea was developed by my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, specifically in his handling of the subject of prayer but also in his general attitude towards the position of human beings vis-à-vis the Creator.   The basic position of human beings with regard to the Creator, so Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained, is a position of hardship.  A person who comes to address the Holy One, blessed be He, brings his misery and hardship with him, his feelings of despair and bitterness.   It is precisely these difficult emotions that give rise to a sense of yearning and longing for the Creator which result in worshipping Him through prayer. [3]   In his essay, “U-vikashtem mi-sham [But if you search there for the Lord your G-d],” Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote: [4]

Revelation of the Deity through times of crisis and the depths of despair is a principle in Judaism.  Sometimes the Deity does not reveal Himself to those souls who are somewhat happy; He reveals himself to the dumbstruck soul, stricken with weariness and fatigue…   G-d is revealed through suffering and tragedy, when the individual or the community are in hardship and distress … it is precisely … out of the cry of misery that the kiss of G-d is wafted aloft. [5]

Prayer is not Ecstasy

Therefore, Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained, the element of beseeching and entreating is so fundamental and important in prayer. [6]   The main substance and power of prayer lies in entreaty.  Rabbi Soloveitchik was of the opinion that the Halakhah shuns the view of prayer as a total spiritual experience of ecstatic separation of the soul from the body, and is rather interested in the broken human being, the actual human body and its psychosomatic condition. [7]   The fundamental position of the person praying is “a prayer of the lowly man when he is faint” (Ps. 102:1), and the basic definition of prayer (paralleling the sacrificial service):   “True sacrifice to G-d is a contrite spirit; G-d, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart” (Ps. 51:19).

On more than one occasion I have heard my teacher Rabbi Lichtenstein say that Rabbi Soloveitchik believed this point to be so important that he even found that halakhic definitions of the requirement of prayer lend expression to his idea.   This is illustrated by a bold remark made by Rabbi Soloveitchik.  Maimonides’ exceptional position that the obligation of praying comes from the Torah, rather than being a rabbinic requirement,  is well-known (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 5).   Nahmanides takes issue with Maimonides in his glosses and maintains that if the Torah contains a commandment to pray, it only applies in time of trouble.  The great innovation made by Rabbi Soloveitchik was to perceive that actually Maimonides and Nahmanides are in agreement and that prayer indeed is only obligatory “in time of trouble.” However in Maimonides’ view the immanent and existential human condition is one of crisis, so that a person is always “in time of trouble” and continually in need of Heaven’s mercy.

It seems to me that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach can explain the exegetical approach used by Rashi and the midrash.  It is precisely in the dynamic of the loved one who hides from his beloved, [8] in the great crisis of sin that sets G-d at a distance, that the revelation of the Divine Presence expressed in the words “that I may dwell among them” can take place . [9]


[1] Maimonides is well-known to have vehemently opposed any attempt at personification and to have devoted extensive sections of his works to this subject.  Time and again he stresses that this verse is not to be taken in its plain sense.   In his Mishneh Torah he interprets the command as preparing a place for sacrificial service:  “It is a positive commandment to prepare a House of the Lord for sacrifices to be offered in it…   The Tabernacle made by Moses was interpreted in the Torah as being for the moment, for it is said, because you have not come to the allotted haven… (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 1.1).  This idea is expressed even more forcefully in Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, chapter 32):   “It is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.  Now G-d sent Moses to make a kingdom of priests and a holy nation … The Israelites were commanded … you shall serve the Lord your G-d  But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them…  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of G-d, … that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of G-d and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.   For this reason G-d allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; comp., and they shall make Me a sanctuary, to have the altar erected to His name.”   From these remarks it ostensibly follows that to a large extent the commandments to build the Tabernacle and the Temple were given after the fact as a result of the weakness of the time and the period, and that it might have been preferable for worship of the Lord to be purely abstract and spiritual.  Nevertheless, one should pay attention to the fact that in Hilkhot Melakhim Maimonides cites a certain verse from Deuteronomy (12:5) which serves as the source for building the Temple:  “look only to the site that the Lord your    G-d will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go.”   The tone of this verse seems quite different, for the looking mentioned here has the character of study and encounter between man and the Creator, which does not necessarily require sacrificial worship.  This notion of a Temple does not revolve around the altar, rather the ark and the ark cover, where the Divine Presence is revealed.  My teacher Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein time and again stressed the difference between these two sources in Maimonides.  I would like to add that, in my opinion, the Temple for Maimonides had a double nature:   on one hand it was indeed the place were man worshipped G-d, offering Him sacrifices, yet on the other the Temple was the place were the Holy One, blessed be He, manifest Himself to man and in which He instilled His presence.  These two aspects have practical implications regarding Temple worship, but enough has been said of this for the present.

[2] This reservation is apparently what underlies Maimonides’ remarks in Guide for the Perplexed, loc. sit.

s Cf. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essay, “Ra’ayonot al ha-Tefillah,” in Ish ha-HalakhahGalui ve-Nistar, Jerusalem 1979, p. 245.

[4]U- vikashtem mi-sham,” loc. sit., pp. 114-145.

[5] Rabbi Soloveitchik often supported his words with examples from Scripture.

[6] It should be stressed that the halakhah which stipulates that words of praise should precede supplication ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkho Tefillah 1.2) was interpreted by my mentor in the same spirit.  In his opinion, prefacing with praise also stems from a sense of immanent rending.   Cf. loc. sit., p. 247.

[7] Loc. sit., p. 265.

[8] As Rabbi Soloveitchik elucidated at length in his essay, U- vikashem mi-sham, loc. sit., pp. 117-121, 137, 140-146.

[9] It is of the utmost importance to stress that this does not mean the sin was a positive step.  Such an approach has an element of Sabbatianism and is very dangerous, since it condones the idea of sin for its own sake.  What we mean to say is that man’s function is to channel the crisis and transform it into a vehicle for bringing spiritual elation.  Cf. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, “Averah le-ShmahHirhurim be- Halakhah u-ve-Mahashavah,” in He-Aher, bein ha-Adam le-Atzmo u-le-Zulato (ed. H. Deutsch and M. Ben Sasson), Tel Aviv 2001, pp. 99-125.