Terumah: Mere Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

Adar is upon us but hopefully this week’s commentary on the haftarah
will not fall into the category of “Purim Torah.”

The book of Shmot, or Exodus, takes a thematic turn this week as we
shift from the laws of civil society to the laws of building the
Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The plans for the Mishkan were laid
out in great detail in this section of Shmot, and it’s always
interesting to study them. Our haftarah continues the story some
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, when the details of the
Mikdash, or Jerusalem Temple, are laid out as King Shlomo [Solomon]
arranges and supervises its construction.

The haftarah, from the first book of Kings, describes how Shlomo made
a treaty with the king of Lebanon in order to secure building supplies
for the Temple- so far, so good. However, unlike the description of
the free-will offerings of people which went into the construction of
the Miskhan, the king decrees forced labor, sending thousands of men
to Lebanon to bring the stones back to Jerusalem.

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch sees an ominous tension between the two narratives
of building sacred spaces- in the Torah, the freed slaves gave
willingly of all they had to build the Mishkan, whereas in First
Kings, the people are under the king’s orders, and there is little
joy- and no choice- involved in the project. To Hirsch, the final
verse of the haftarah is a warning to Shlomo not to mistake a
beautiful building for a truly sacred place:

” Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon, ‘With regard to this
House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules
and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the
promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the
children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’ ” (1
Kings 6:11-13)

What made the Temple- well, the Temple- was not where and with what
materials it was constructed, but that the presence of the Sacred was
felt to be “dwelling” there among the people of Israel. To achieve
that required not physical but spiritual architecture- starting at the
top, with a clear understanding on the part of the king that it was
his moral standing which gave him the right to build the Temple, and
not the reverse.

Hirsch’s interpretation of the haftarah is timeless, and not limited
to Judaism. Human beings, being embodied inhabitants of the physical
world ( a good thing!), have a tendency to confuse the “klipah,” the
outer shell of a thing, for the inner experience. Buildings are not
congregations; prayerbooks are not prayer; the Torah is not words on a
page but a dialogue which shapes covenental love and connection.

It humbles me to think that even Shlomo, ostensibly the wisest man of
his generation, needed to be reminded that the Temple was mere stone
if the people did not experience the Sacred within its walls. Even the
ancient Temple was only worthy of its name- Mikdash, the holy place-
if the king built it and the people approached it deeply committed to
the moral covenant which is the true center of Jewish life. Buildings
are not congregations – but they can house congregations, and only
then be filled with the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom,


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