Parashat T'rumah describes the construction of the Tabernacle. Each individual contributes to its building materials and furnishings as he or she is motivated. God gives meticulously detailed instructions regarding the design and elements of the Tabernacle, especially the Holy Ark.
In the second aliyah, God gives instructions regarding construction of the Ark's cover. Only then does God relay its significance:
"There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you-from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact-all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people." (Exodus 25:22)
"The ark is one of the most prominent articles of furniture in the Tabernacle. More verses are devoted to it than any other (13 verses)." (Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, 487) Located centrally in the Tabernacle, it houses the tablets (both sets) inscribed on Mount Sinai and serves as the physical and spiritual focal point. The details contained in this parashah may be understood practically and allegorically.
From a practical perspective, the ark serves a purpose. It is there that God through Moses communicates with the children of Israel. The suggestion that God is located in a particular place is problematic on its surface. It does not comport with an incorporeal, ubiquitous divine being. Therefore, some commentators suggest that the designation of the ark as a place where God dwells is a concession to the limits of human understanding. The Torah speaks in the language of human beings. It was the Israelites who needed the comfort and protection of God's constant presence among them, and God recognized this symbolic necessity.
The coming together to build the Tabernacle also serves a practical purpose. Shortly following their enslavement in Egypt, the Children of Israel unite to create this great structure. They have built countless structures of magnitude and importance in Egypt, but under the oppressive yoke of a tyrannical Pharaoh. The storehouses and towering edifices of Egypt were paeans to paganism. In their own desert camp, they are "privileged to expend their labor for God's sake. This more than anything else concretized their freedom." (Plaut, 543) In this case, the work actually did set the children of Israel free.
The details of the Tabernacle serve a spiritual as well as a psychological role. Although we believe God is everywhere, we can also be spiritually influenced by our physical surroundings. The inner sanctum where God meets Moses is akin to a beautiful palace, and God's role as Ruler of the Kingdom of Israel is exemplified by this configuration. God sits above the cover of the Ark in the middle of the chamber much as King sits in waiting for his courtiers to announce a visit or a necessary edict. The cover "is like a footstool. The unseen God will speak as if sitting on the divine throne." (Plaut, 546) This is an image of awesome reverence, an elemental quality of the divine.
Where we pray certainly affects our prayer. Modern synagogue architecture has often lowered the bimah and brought the congregation closer to the prayer leader, or shaliach tzibur. This space sends the message that all people in the congregation reach towards God together. This trend may be also inspired by the modern democratic approach to spirituality, moving away from the image of God as Ruler. Some people are inspired to pray in a natural setting, for example, in the outdoor chapel at camp, in the mountains or near a body of water. Even small physical changes (lighting, seat arrangements, music) can set the tone and transport us to a spiritual place. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, "…in ways we don't necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances." (The Tipping Point, 152)
Even in meditation, there is a physical aspect to prayer. Aryeh Kaplan explains the technique of gerushin, focusing on a verse as a method for meditation: "Write the verse on a piece of paper and use it as a focus. Fix your gaze on the verse; do not take your eyes off of it. The verse should become the center of your attention to the exclusion of everything else." (Jewish Meditation, 21) The description of the Tabernacle is one of ever smaller concentric circles, culminating with the Ark of the Tablets. God may be everywhere, ready to meet us at any time, but our tradition impels us to look for God behind the curtain that covers Torah, the evolving story of our people meeting at Sinai.
- Our text describes the place where God meets and imparts to Moses. Where do you meet God?
- The description of the ark is also interpreted allegorically. The Talmud (Yoma 72b) teaches that a true scholar's insides match his or her outside, just like the ark which is covered with gold inside and out. How would you interpret the symbols described in our verse?
- How important is the physical context in which we find ourselves? How does it influence our inner state? Reflect on your own experiences in settings that comforted you or caused you anxiety, changed your attitude or performance.
For Further Learning
Study the Tabernacle layout as illustrated in Gunter Plaut's Revised Edition on page 544. Notice the central location of the Ark. All of the other elements of the Tabernacle lay in the same 10 cubit plane. Discuss why the spiritual or religious center of the structure must be physically centered. What is physically centered in your home? Where are the spiritual, emotional, and communal centers in your home? In your community?
T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 451–472