The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
The House of Prayer

by Avraham ben Yaakov

"For My house will be called the House of Prayer for all the Nations" (Isaiah 56:7)

The central theme of all the remaining five portions of the book of Exodus is the design, construction and inauguration of the Wilderness Sanctuary. The first six portions of the book of Leviticus then set forth the various priestly sacrificial and other rituals that were to be carried out there.

The attention and detail which the Torah devotes to the Sanctuary is a sign of its supreme importance. The Wilderness Sanctuary and its services stand as the prototype of the two Temples that later stood in Jerusalem, as well as of the Future Temple that is destined to stand in Jerusalem at the end of days, as foretold by the prophets of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 2:2ff, Micah 4:1ff, Ezekiel chs 40-48; see Maimonides, Laws of the Temple 1:4).

"Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem it was forbidden to built a house to HaShem in all other places or offer sacrifices to HaShem in them; and for all the generations there can be no other house except in Jerusalem alone and on Mount Moriah, of which it is said: 'And David said, This is the House of HaShem The God and this is the Altar of the burnt offering for Israel' (I Chronicles 22:1), and it says: 'This is My resting place until eternity' (Psalms 132:14)" (Maimonides ibid. 1:3).

The Sanctuary described in our portion was constructed entirely through the contributions of the people of Israel, and likewise the Temples in Jerusalem were built by Israel. The Temple services were and will be entrusted to the hands of the descendants of Aaron the High Priest - a select breed known as the Cohanim (priests), assisted by members of the rest of the tribe of Levi acting as the Temple singers and guards.

Yet while Israel are charged with the building and maintenance of the Temple, it is a place of the utmost significance for all the nations. This is because the intent of all the Temple services is to bring divine blessing and sustenance to all the different branches of creation in all places on earth - on the inanimate, vegetable, animal and human levels. All these levels were represented in the Temple services through the salt (Leviticus 2:13, inanimate level), offerings of grain, wine, oil and first fruits (vegetable level), the animal and bird sacrifices (animal level) and the priests and Levites conducting the services (human level). During the Festival of Succot, a total of 70 oxen were offered in the Temple on behalf of the 70 nations of the world (Numbers 29:13-32). The Rabbis taught: "If the nations of the world had understood how valuable the Holy Temple was for them, they would have surrounded it with troops and fortifications to guard it" ( Midrash Rabbah Numbers 1:3) .

Thus the study of the details of the Wilderness prototype sanctuary and its services in this and the coming portions is of relevance to people of all nations, because the Temple and its offerings are replete with lessons about how we should lead our lives.

Our present portion begins by describing some of the main Sanctuary utensils. At the head comes the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Two Tablets of Stone and the complete scroll of the Five Books of Moses. This is followed by the Showbread Table (representing material sustenance) and the Menorah Candelabrum (representing spiritual blessing). Our portion goes on to describe the structure of the Wilderness Sanctuary or "Tent of Meeting", with its layers of embroidered cloths and skins supported on walls formed by massive vertical gold-plated timbers. In the innermost part of the Sanctuary - the Holy of Holies - stood the Ark of the Covenant veiled by a curtain. In front of this curtain in the main sanctuary stood the Showbread Table to the right, the Candelabrum to the left and the golden incense altar (described later on in Exodus 30:1-5) in the middle. Outside the entrance to the Sanctuary in the open air stood the main altar for animal, bird, grain, oil and wine offerings. Both the Sanctuary and the Altar were enclosed in a courtyard.

The position of the Ark of the Covenant in the holiest part of the Sanctuary teaches us the supreme reverence that we must give to the Torah contained within it, since God's law is the prescription for peace and blessing for all the world. The Torah is the first of the three pillars on which the world stands (Avot 1:2; see Torah For the Nations commentary on Bereishit, "Torah study and the dignity of man").

The Sanctuary itself was not a place for congregational prayer as such. Ordinary Israelites were forbidden to enter there, and even the priests could enter only for the purpose of performing their services, such as lighting the candelabrum, burning the incense and placing the showbread, or to prostrate briefly.

The focal point of the Temple services was the outside Altar, where the priests would offer the sacrifices while a choir of Levites chanted. Since the offering of sacrifices anywhere but in the Temple was strictly forbidden, as explained above, it cannot be that the purpose of studying the Temple services is to enable people to imitate them elsewhere. Rather, the Temple sacrifices stand as a vivid symbol of the way humans should strive constantly to metaphorically "slaughter" and restrain their own lower "animal" instincts in order to elevate their higher human strengths and powers to the service of God.

"For You do not delight in sacrifice, or else would I give it; You have no pleasure in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalms 51:18-19).

The most acceptable human offering to God is the prayers that we offer with deep veneration, humility, yearning and longing, in honesty and truth, from the innermost recesses of our hearts.




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