Parashat Terumah

The Role Of Ritual

In focusing on ritual laws, Parashat Terumah teaches us that by reliving heroic historic moments we can introduce the transcendent into our daily lives.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

If the sudden shift of gears in the Torah from the heroic narratives of Genesis and Exodus to the apparently pedantic legalism of Mishpatim ('Laws') is puzzling, this week's parashah is even more problematic. In Terumah (which means 'Donation,' referring to the materials donated by the Israelites for the construction of the Tabernacle), we move from the legalistic concerns of last week's parashah to the ritualistic details of the building and maintenance of the Tabernacle.

Discussing the Temple

We begin a very long discussion, which actually takes us through much of the rest of the Torah, of the Temple: the materials needed to construct it, its design, its vessels, the sacrifices to be offered and the rites to be practiced within it. If the legal material of Mishpatim does in fact hold a good deal of relevance for our own lives, and actually represents a shift from the stories of redemption to the commandment to redeem, what does the Temple and its rituals mean to us?

The Temple ritual is just that--ritual. It has no 'real' effect on the 'real' world, and does not change it, in the way that freeing a slave, or being charitable to the needy, does. If following the moral-ethical precepts of the Torah makes me an actor, and a playwright, rather than a member of the audience, in God's drama, what does the ritual of the Temple do?

What do these symbolic acts mean for the people who worshipped in the Tabernacle in the desert, or in the Temple in Jerusalem? What were the sacrifices, the burnt offerings, the various rituals meant to do for them? What meaning did they have in their lives? And, by extension, what difference could they possibly make in ours?

To get to an understanding of where ritual fits in to the Torah's narrative, I would like to share with you the approach of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (known as the Ramban, or Nahmanides) to the Temple. At the start of his commentary on Terumah, the Ramban posits that the Temple was meant to be a reenactment of the dramatic experience the Jewish people had just gone through; the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

That moment, when the entire nation experienced directly the presence of God, and heard His word, was the supreme moment of Jewish, and in fact of human, history. Almost immediately afterwards, Moshe is instructed to tell the Jews to construct a Tabernacle, to be used while they are in the desert, which foreshadows the permanent Temple which will be built when they arrive in Israel.

Nahmanides posits that the point of the Temple, its raison d'etre, is NOT the offering of sacrifices or the reciting of prayers. Rather, he says, it is a direct continuation of the Exodus narrative:

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.