Synagogue More Than Just a Community Center for Jews

a synagogue roof with a gold star on david on top
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By Rabbi Lawrence Troster

Parshat Terumah

One of the major themes of the Bible is the concern with the place of God’s presence.

As biblical scholar Baruch Levine has pointed out, even though we believe that God is everywhere, we still have an emotional need to experience God’s presence in special places in order to focus our sense of the divine. This was true for people in ancient times as much as modern.

“The Lord is near to all who call upon Him” (Psalm 145:18), but God tells us in this week’s Torah reading: “And they shall make Me a Tabernacle that I may abide in their amidst” (Exodus 25:8, Robert Alter translation). What follows in this week’s parshah and in the following weeks are the incredibly detailed instructions for the design and building of the tabernacle, the portable shrine that was the model for Solomon’s Temple.

One could reasonably ask why the Torah spends so much time on the details of the tabernacle when it ignores so many other details of narrative and character. We learn so little of the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs or of the details of the practice of the Sabbath.

But this week begins chapter after chapter of the design of the Ark of the Covenant, the curtains, implement, altars and priestly vestments. Then, at the end of Exodus, we are told all of it again, as the details of the tabernacle’s construction is given. It is evident for the Torah these details are critical teachings.

Modern scholarship has pointed out that the tabernacle and the later temple were considered microcosms of the macrocosm of the universe. Each part of the tabernacle corresponded to a part of the world. Thus, the building of the tabernacle was the human equivalent of God creating the world. Since the Middle Ages, it had been noted that there are seven sections of the commands to build the tabernacle and, although each section is not directly parallel to each day of Creation, the language used has similar structure to Genesis chapter 1.

There are however two direct connections: On day six in Genesis 1, humanity is created “in the image of God.” The sixth command in Exodus 31:1-5 is the appointment of Bezalel as the lead builder of the Tabernacle. God describes him as “filled with the spirit (ruach) of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in every task” (Alter translation).

Only one other person in Genesis is described as having the “spirit of God” and that is Joseph (Genesis 41:38) in reference to his dream interpretation ability. The phrase “spirit of God” is first used in Genesis 1:2 where it can also be understood as “God’s breath” (Alter translation). It means the creative energy of God that animates all life and the world. Bezalel having this energy suggests that he is indeed “in the image of God” and well suited to create the microcosm of creation.

So the sixth command of the Tabernacle building directly corresponds to the sixth day of creation where humanity is created to be God’s representatives and agents on the earth. And so is Bezalel as the human agent of the creation of the tabernacle which marks the final completion of creation.

The other parallel is the seventh command in Exodus 31:12-17, which is about Shabbat corresponding to the seventh day of creation in Genesis 2:1-4. The completion of the tabernacle corresponded to God completing the world and then resting on the seventh day. The rabbis understood this connection when they derived the major categories of forbidden labor on Shabbat from the various acts of the construction of the tabernacle.

For our ancestors the tabernacle/temple was not only the place where the real presence of God could be felt and approached, it was also the conduit for God’s blessings to enter the world.

After the destruction of the temple, these functions were in some way transferred to the synagogue. Structurally, the synagogue is also a microcosm of creation. The various elements which make up a synagogue correspond to the layout of the tabernacle/temple: the Holy Ark to the Holy of Holies, the Ner Tamid to the fire on the altar and to the menorah, the reading table to the altar of sacrifice, the sanctuary to the Holy Place and the foyer to the outer courtyard.

And while the synagogue is a place of prayer and not sacrifice, it is still a place in which we try to evoke the real presence of the living God. Unfortunately, this is often forgotten. The synagogue is often considered a kind of community center, a place for social and cultural activities. We have forgotten the meaning of Mikdash, a holy shrine or holy place in which the presence of God dwells. While we do not have the Ark of the Covenant, its spirit is still with us in the ark in which the scrolls of the Torah are kept.

There has been a great call lately for increased spirituality in the Jewish community, and there have been many complaints that synagogues are not spiritual enough. This call shows how important an immediate connection to God is for many of us.

Many congregations are creating services that are less formal and more participatory than previously, more filled with singing music and dance. In the temple there was a Levite band and choir and dance often accompanied the singing of the Psalms.

Bringing all this back is wonderful, but we must not lose sight of its purpose to strive to feel the real presence of God, which is the true starting point for Jewish spirituality. If we aspire to do this then we will create a holy place for God to dwell in among us.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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