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The View From Above

Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Mount Sinai, the Temple & the unity of the Jewish People.

As Parashat Terumah begins, we are somewhat taken aback: Out of nowhere (or so it seems), instructions for a major construction project are handed down. Coming on the heels of the very practical list of torts that makes up much of Parashat Mishpatim - laws that serve as the framework for a just and elevated society - the instructions conveyed in Parashat Terumah seem to be of a different order altogether. Here, the people are given extremely precise and detailed instructions for building an edifice. The focus has clearly shifted from building society, to the service of God. While these concepts need not be mutually exclusive, the dramatic shift should not be overlooked.

In fact, the shift between these two different spheres is not as abrupt as we might think. The concluding verses of Parashat Mishpatim contain an important segue that alerts us to the shift in focus that will follow; it is a short, and thus easily overlooked group of verses. Following the Israelites' commitment to observe and uphold the laws they have just been taught, Moshe climbs the mountain in preparation for his rendezvous with God. The mountain is covered by a cloud that represents God's presence, and Moshe waits there until, on the seventh day, God calls out to him and invites him to ascend into the cloud itself. This is the final scene of Parashat Mishpatim, which is immediately followed by the communication Moshe receives at the summit of Mount Sinai: Parashat Terumah, the instructions for building the Mishkan (Sanctuary or Tabernacle).

Despite the fact that our tradition of weekly Torah reading separates these two sections, they are intrinsically of one and the same piece: Moshe's ascent continues with the instructions to build the Mishkan. Perched in the ethereal clouds, from a vantage point closer to heaven than to earth, Moshe is instructed to teach the people how to build the Mishkan, a structure that would serve as a link between heaven and earth.

In a sense, this scene is reminiscent of Yaakov's vision of the ladder, with its feet on the ground and its head in the sky, creating an image of the connection between heaven and earth. How fitting, then, that when Yaakov awakens from his dream he vows to build a sanctuary: His vow is the logical conclusion of the vision he has just seen.

Yaakov awoke from his sleep. He said, 'God is truly in this place, but I did not know it.' He was frightened. 'How awe-inspiring this place is!' he exclaimed. 'It must be God's Temple, for this is the gate to heaven!' (Bereishit 28:16,17)

Yaakov sees angels ascending a ladder that reaches up into heaven. He sees the view from above; apparently, he sees exactly what Moshe saw: The place at which heaven and earth meet, The Temple.

The connection between these two visions speaks to the very heart of the Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple in Jerusalem) and the Mishkan that was its precursor. According to rabbinic tradition, Yaakov saw this vision as he lay in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where the Temple would eventually stand, whereas Moshe saw this vision when he climbed Mount Sinai, the place that made the Temple itself possible.

Sinai was the place where the people experienced unparalleled unity. Only because of this unity were they able to receive the Torah. This is reflected in the laws regarding the Torah scroll: If even one letter is missing or incomplete, the Torah scroll becomes invalid, "un-kosher." The Torah itself represents the totality of the Jewish people. Thus, in a very real sense, when we lack unity, we deny something fundamental about the Torah, perhaps even destroy it, as it were.

The Temple also represents the unity of the Jewish People. When the nation is divided, the very walls of the Temple crumble; the edifice cannot stand. The Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was destroyed because of "unwarranted hatred" between Jews. Perhaps this is why Yaakov was unable to fulfill his vow and build the House of God: The hatred that sprung up among his sons made it impossible for his vision to be brought to fruition.

At Sinai, the Children of Israel stood as one and accepted the Torah. They entered into a covenant that would bind them to one another and to God, and they accepted upon themselves the rules that would create an elevated society. Only then, as they stood united and accepted the Torah, a new opportunity arose to build a Temple. "They shall make Me a Mishkan, and I will dwell among them." (Shmot 25:8)

Their newfound unity had taken generations to achieve, and it was the very bedrock of the Mishkan. The experience of peoplehood at Sinai was what gave them the ability to accept the Torah, and to live with God in their midst. Without unity, the Mishkan could not exist, nor would God's presence be among them. Both the Torah and the Mishkan are given to the Jewish People as a whole; both are contingent upon unity, both represent unity, and both are means of fostering and nurturing unity.

Standing above the clouds, half way between heaven and earth, everything became perfectly clear: We have the ability to connect the sacred and the mundane, heaven and earth - but before we do so, in order to do so, we must connect ourselves to one another, as one united People. The first step is not the building of a temple; it is the building of the bonds between us. Only with unity as its foundation will the ladder of Yaakov's vision become a reality, allowing us to link heaven and earth and to bring God's presence into our lives.

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