|"The erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels |
lllustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible;
illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)
and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague;
The 1728 depiction of the construction of the ancient Tabernacle on your handout was an attempt to imagine what the Israelite center for worship must have looked like. You can see Moses in the drawing with rays of light coming off of his head. That would be Aaron next to him, already wearing the breastplate with stones signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. All of the furnishings for the Tabernacle appear ready to be moved to their designated spots. What this drawing illustrates is the nearly finished product. The question is….how did that project get that far? How would the Israelites in the wilderness have had anything with them that could have been used in constructing even a portable holy place?
One answer to those questions might be, “Don’t ask! It’s there in the text – it happened – the people must have had something with them to make it happen!” Some scholars have suggested that there was no Tabernacle in the wilderness, but that it was imagined by later generations of the people of Israel who worshipped regularly at the Temple in Jerusalem. They likely thought that their ancestors who had left Egypt must have created a portable version of a forerunner of the Temple. From those notions may have come the detailed descriptions contained in the Torah which were distinctively portrayed in the drawing before us from 1728.
Whether the Tabernacle and Sanctuary were real or not may not matter. Any community has to start somewhere. Last Sunday, our 4th-5th grade class went into the storage room behind the sanctuary that houses prayerbooks that we used to use, prayerbooks we use now, old copies of the Hertz Pentateuch, and, unexpectedly, a collection of scrapbooks, photo albums, and envelopes with photos from past events at Temple Beth-El. We are talking about 60 years of history being depicted in those photos, from the time when this community was just getting started in creating the foundations of its organizational structure and in developing relationships among leaders and members that would make all future growth of Temple Beth-El possible. Newspaper clippings in the scrapbooks go back to the 1950s. The photos encompass a time before there was a building, to many events in the building on Parker Road, to photos of the groundbreaking at this location. Every article, every face in those photos, bears significance to the legacies created in this congregation over the decades. What our current Religious School students uncovered was a treasure-trove of images and stories that have contributed to making Temple Beth-El what it is today.
What we have here now, this building and our community, have their roots in the gathering and wanderings of the ancient Israelites. Whatever their actual history, they were creating memories all their own. For the moment, let’s assume that the Tabernacle in the wilderness did exist in some form. What is crucial is the message contained at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, which is on the handout. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, God instructed him to command the Israelites to bring gifts that would be used to make the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the sacred garments for the priests. To do that would take many, many gifts of raw materials. So how did the Israelites come to have all that was needed for the project? Commentators assert that they did have some possessions while they lived in Egypt. And when they left, as we are told in Exodus Chapter 12, the Egyptians urged the Israelites to keep objects of silver and gold as well as clothing that they had loaned to them.
So that is how the large quantity of materials for the project came to be in the possession of this formerly enslaved people. What was more important than the contributions themselves of the items listed in this week’s Torah reading was the requested attitude that would motivate the giving. God told Moses, “You shall accept gifts FOR Me from every person whose heart moves him/her to do so.” The donations had to be voluntary, coming from the deepest desires of the people. It didn’t matter how much they gave, as long as the sum total of the gifts would make the completion of the Tabernacle possible. Giving willingly and with humility was all that was asked of the Israelites. The word for gifts, TERUMAH, means something that was “elevated,” “exalted” or “lifted up.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (as noted in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary) explained that offering any gift to God takes the donor to a higher level, no matter what his or her motivation.
The Biblical garden project that we are now witnessing come to fruition outside Temple also has required donations from community members. Every brick, every gift, every idea, and every inspiration related to this effort is like the materials that the Israelites were commanded to bring. One goal for the Biblical garden outside is that it will offer a special site for meditation – much like the Tabernacle, which was mostly an outdoor space for worship. That area outside our building will carry with it the sentiment expressed in God’s command to Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky noted in a recent post online that he retranslates that phrase in this way: “Let them make me a sanctuary…but I will dwell among them.” In other words, our efforts at creating sacred space offer us tangible reminders of what is intangible in life that comprises our foundation of central Jewish values, such as love, connection, caring, support, faith, hope, goodness, kindness, and peace. Creating holiness in space can continue to inspire us to infuse holy principles into our character, which can elevate all that we give to each other to a higher level. They can lead us to fashion a legacy of holiness that will strengthen who we are as a community, a people, and as members of the human family. May the gifts we bring, and the spaces we create, add quality and meaning to every day of our lives.