Parshat Terumah

Parashat Terumah is the first of the weekly Torah portions with a narrative that fails to excite. We have been reading about the world’s creation, the Flood and its diluvial ramifications, the stories of our matriarchs and their husbands, the Great Exodus from Egypt that brought us — with no apparent exit strategy — to the Sea of Reeds, and then Mount Sinai, where God Almighty, amid thunder and lightning, revealed Himself to our nation of millions by declaring the Ten Pronouncements, which later would be engraved in stone as a memorial. One exciting event after another.

Last week, in Mishpatim, the Torah slowly transitioned from narrative history toward legal codification. Now Terumah sets forth, in the most punctilious detail, how to build the Mishkan, the portable temple that will accompany us through the last 39 years of our Sinai peregrinations before finally finding a resting place for 369 years in the City of Shiloh in the Promised Land (Zevachim 118b).

In those years, Jewish worship focused around one central holy place, the Mishkan. In time, a more permanent structure would be constructed in the city God would choose to rest His Shechinah: Jerusalem eternal. And Judaism would center for centuries more around that holy site, where Kohanim performed their sacrificial service, Levites mounted their platforms and Israelites stood at their stations.

We did not have shuls and temples in those days. It was a time when all the world found “spirituality” — that intangible warm feeling of connecting with the Infinite — through animal sacrifice to their many gods, a world of religious pageantry and altars and offerings. So God in His lovingkindness provided His people with a way to reach Him directly, compatible with their milieu. Even so, Judaism dramatically would differ, by declaring that there is but One God, our God, and by sanctifying the animal-sacrifice rite as the Torah commanded. But it also was a time before Guttenberg and printing presses, so a time before prayer books. The kind of temple service to which we are accustomed today — prayers from the Psalms, petitioning God in the daily Amidah prayer composed by the Men of the Great Assembly, the contemporary davening experience — was not practicable. David had not yet entered history to write Psalms, and people could not have amassed, awaiting a page announcement, to recite the correct one in unison.

In time, after the Romans destroyed our Temple, we found ourselves exiled. Soon we were dispersing across the globe, a bit by choice, mostly in panicked refuge from one or another vulgarian’s hordes. And through those centuries, particularly once books could be mass printed, new forms of worship took hold, redefining “spirituality.” We became daveners. Ultimately we would evolve into a people who choose where to worship based on the Hebrew school, the sisterhood and men’s club, the social action program, the rabbi’s sermon, the architecture of the bricks and mortar.

Sometimes, when we look back at the Age of Terumah — at the Judaism of yore — some of us cannot relate.

“I don’t get it, rabbi. What kind of Judaism is that? Where is its spirituality? How can we pray for a return to the Holy Temple, so that we can again ‘perform the rite of our required offerings, the continual [korban tamid] offerings in their order and the additional [musaf] offerings according to their laws’? Is that spirituality?”

And yet I wonder: When the Righteous Messiah comes, speedily in our days, and ushers in an era that sees the resurrection and return of the millennia of Jews who lived during the Mishkan and Temple centuries before Guttenberg, will they be asking their rabbis in Jerusalem: “Why do those ‘Post-Exilics’ all huddle in corners, turning pages by rote, mumbling in buzzes? Here, we have restored the pageantry and magnificence of the Kohen in his precious garments, the Levites and their gorgeous choirs, and these Post-Exilics just alternately rise and sit, rise and sit. Where is their spirituality?”

Spirituality is subjective. It is within us to connect, different ways in different generations, according to the Torah laws and customs of our times. And so we conclude our every Amidah, 22 times each week, with this supplication: “Our God, please desire your nation Israel and their prayers, and also please restore the sacrificial service to your Holy Temple. Please accept with love and desire both the sacrificial fires and the recited prayers, and may the services of your nation Israel always be favorable to you.”

And as we respect those generations who worship from a different milieu, and as they do towards us, may God look down on that great day and say: “This mutuality of respect and unity of purpose among Jews who differ, is spirituality.”