This week’s Parsha is the beginning of a series of four portions that detail the precise building structure of the Mishkan – the portable Temple used in Biblical times.
As you may know, building manuals and construction log books are not really my thing. Yet at the very start of this weeks’ portion is an incredible key with the greatest implications on how we view Jewish history and destiny.
In the education system of my youth, which I spent the first 24 years of my life utterly submerged in, the story line was considered pretty straightforward. Essentially, once upon a time our ancestors were spiritual giants; as such, they had prophecy, miracles, and God’s presence in the Temple. Then they sinned. As a result, prophecy was taken away from them, miracles ceased occurring, and the Temple was destroyed. In other words, the Temple was a gift from God when they were good, and taken away from them when they were naughty.
This kind of description explains why the Torah goes into great detail around the instructions to build and the actual building process, which was pretty much identical, and then spends a quarter of the Torah telling us what sacrifices to bring in the Temple. This is also why in the prayers we beseech God, multiple times every day, to rebuild the Temple and ‘renew our days of old’.
And it is precisely this reading of the situation that can be seen to lead to extreme right-wing Jewish groups making it their political objective; rebuilding the Temple on the site where the current Dome of the Rock stands.
The problem with all this is that it contradicts the idea that we are taught from crèche onward that God is everywhere. Ask any child where God is and they will no doubt sing for you the classic lullaby ‘Hashem is here Hashem is there Hashem is truly everywhere. Up up down down right left and all around here there and everywhere that’s where He can be found’. At least this was true of anyone in the early learning centres I went to as a child.
If God is indeed everywhere, why bother with such an elaborate construction? Why then is there the instruction to go fundraising for gold, silver, copper, and a myriad of other expensive materials? I guess it’s true, when God is doing the fundraising there’s kinda nowhere for major donors to hide. But that’s beside the point. Why does the Torah instruct us to build a magnificent Temple to ‘house’ God when in fact God is not a creature to be domesticated?
The answer may lie in an astounding piece of biblical interpretation by one of its foremost commentators, the Sforno.
The eighth verse in this week’s portion reads ‘You shall make for me a Temple so that I shall dwell in them.’ The Sforno poses the question: God says to build Him a Temple, singular, so that He may hang out in them, plural?! The Sforno then explains: the very construction of the Temple was made necessary only because the Jewish people lapsed into idolatry. He maintains that ideally no Temple should have been needed after the Revelation, when God’s Presence was felt by each and every person in the most immediate manner. Only after the sin of the Golden Calf did it become apparent that they were spiritually poor and therefore needed a tangible place to worship, an awe-inspiring Temple.
From this a few thoughts to keep in mind:
A much easier explanation may be that the ‘them’ in the verse refers to the multiple Temples the Jews would come to have. First the Mishkan, followed by Temple of Solomon, and finally the Second Temple built by Ezra and Nechemia, financed by the Persian Empire, thank you very much. Since there is more than one Temple in our history it would make perfect sense to explain that the Torah is prophesising that there would be more than one Temple.
Yet he chooses an interpretation that actually turns everything on its head. The Temple is all of a sudden not at all the state of perfection. In fact, it is a huge compromise. Ideally we should all reach a state of spiritual connectedness that transcends material objects. Since God is everywhere and everything, why distinguish a material object and say that this is where God rests?!
The only reason is because the audience was a nation of poor people whose souls were savaged by centuries of brutal slavery in Egypt. For them we need to keep it simple. Here is the House of God. This is where you should come to connect to God by sacrificing animals as you are used to.
And this is not an interpretation by some rogue scholar, this Sforno is clearly supremely Kosher because it is quoted in my favourite Chumash, Artscroll, page 444.
And we must likewise resist the temptation to dismiss this interpretation as being intentionally esoteric and not literal. After all, the Source of all Knowledge, Wikipedia, says precious little about this ubiquitous commentator. Despite this it states, and is of course true, ‘The characteristic features of his exegetical work are respect for the literal meaning of the text and a reluctance to entertain mystical interpretations.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obadiah_ben_Jacob_Sforno)
In other words, for Sforno, the verse can be interpreted to read something like this: ‘Make for me a Temple if you must in your spiritually inferior state. Just remember, I dwell in them’ finger pointing away from the Temple. In them, in the many hearts and minds of every human being.
The implications of this is extremely far-ranging. At the very least, though we may say according to this Sforno, that just because we find something in the Torah does not mean it is the ideal for all times and places. Rather, what it means is that it was the ideal for that time and place.
Now that feels very refreshing indeed.