April 20, 2024
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 Parshat Terumah

In this week’s parsha of Terumah, we are introduced to the world of ritual service with the mitzvah of constructing a Mishkan as a center for the worship of Hashem. This theme is the focus of our parasha—as well as the parshiyot of Tetzaveh, part of Ki Tissa and all of both Vayakhel and Pekudei. All told, it fills almost one-third of the book of Shemot! Similarly, our haftarah focuses on the construction of the first Beit Hamikdash, a place that would centralize the sacrificial rite in Yerushalayim for all of Israel. This topic extends from the fifth perek of Sefer Melachim Aleph—through the sixth, the seventh and the eighth chapters. It is clear that Hashem finds it important to emphasize not only who may be worshiped, but also how he may be worshiped.

As is true of the parsha, our haftarah also includes the dimensions of the structure that would be built, this one would be directed by Shlomo HaMelech. And what a magnificent edifice it was! The detailed blueprint delineated for us in the haftarah describes the enormous undertaking and the magnificence of the building—its construction, its size and its grandeur. In fact, when comparing the two, the Mishkan pales in comparison to the glory of the Mikdash. And yet, for the 40 years that the Mishkan stood in the desert, no idol worship took place within the Israelite camp; while, within 30 years of the completion of the Beit Hamikdash, houses of idolatry had been built in the hills surrounding the Holy Temple (Melachim Aleph, 11:4-8)!

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch spares no words of criticism—in his comments regarding the construction of the Beit Hamikdash—found in this perek. He writes: “What a dismal picture … does Israel present at this building! Where is the enthusiasm of the men and women that the sidra describes (in the construction of the Mishkan)? … How much more glorious and holy was the work of weaving and embroidering done by women and girls than all of the glories of Phoenician technique and Shlomo’s artistic taste! This was a different participation that Shlomo reserved for his people: Forced labor! Reminiscent of Pharaoh’s time … and taskmasters too were not lacking!”

So, can we rely on Rav Hirsch’s criticisms of the very construction to explain the collapse of pure monotheism during the early years of the Temple’s existence? Were the grandiose plans and enormous expenditures deemed far too materialistic and, perhaps, even unnecessary? Is this what led to the fall of Shlomo and Israel?

As valid and understandable are the criticisms leveled by Rav Hirsch, we can—nonetheless—defend King Shlomo’s undertaking as being necessary and that it was not the cause of the ultimate “failure” of the Temple’s function. The importance of creating a magnificent structure that would draw the Israelite population from all over the world to the Beit Hamikdash—a structure that would impress the nation with the greatness and glory of God Himself—could not be accomplished by a temporary, portable tent that the Mishkan was. The complicated construction and expert artistry could not be left to volunteers alone. Furthermore, the nation was no longer a collection of nomadic tribes wandering in the desert, but a nation of millions living throughout the promised land that would be expected to work in unison while living dispersed throughout the country.

If we are to search for a cause of the eventual destruction and subsequent exile, we need look no further than the closing pesukim of our haftarah. There, Hashem tells Shlomo HaMelech that through the Beit Hamikdash, He would dwell within Bnai Yisrael. But one verse before the last, He issues the condition to this promise:“Im telech b’chukotai … —Only if you follow My laws, execute My ordinances and keep all of My commandments … ”—Only then, does God promise to dwell within Israel. It is that alone that will guarantee Hashem’s ongoing presence.

No! It was not the construction that caused the destruction; it was our behavior that caused Hashem’s presence to leave His house and make it destructible. “Only if you follow My laws,” was God’s condition for His continued presence in—and ongoing existence of—our holy places. And that is God’s condition for us today, as well.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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