Parashat Terumah: Was the temple really about sacrifice?

Many of us have a problem with sacrifice, and that translates into some ambivalence about hoping for the rebuilding of the Temple.  Reconnecting with sacrifice is an important goal, but I feel it is even more important one to point out that the Temple wasn’t solely or centrally about sacrifice.

By reminding ourselves of what the Temple was mostly about, we can understand this week’s Torah reading better and also rejuvenate our longing for the return of that structure, and what we’ve lost without it. It’s also true that the obligation to rebuild the Mikdash might become practical again sooner than we think, as I’ll mention at the end of this piece. We might as well start preparing ourselves.

The Materials and Definition of the House

To start, look at the materials Hashem lists for building the Mishkan. Gold, silver, copper, various wools, linen, leather, oil (both for light and for anointing), stones for the High Priest’s garments all make the list, but not animals for sacrifice. You might say those are all building materials and animals are usage materials, except that incense to be offered is on this list as well. I suggest that the Torah is implying, at the start, that sacrifice is less essential than the building itself, the furnishings of that building (including the altars), the incense, and the priests’ clothing.

Something of that attitude seems to me true of Rambam’s definition of what is essential to a Temple in 1;5 of הלכות בית הבחירה. He speaks of the Kodesh, the central room (which housed the Menorah, the Table, and the Golden Altar), the Holy of Holies, and the antechamber to the Kodesh, known as the Ulam. Around that 3 roomed structure, there had to be a wall that defined the courtyard of the Temple.

All of that, Rambam says, is the Temple. Sure, that House needs furnishings, and the altar for sacrifice was a central piece. But it is a Temple even without that. I’m not suggesting he was minimizing sacrifice, only that it could be a Mikdash independent of having a place for sacrifice.

It’s About Shechinah

Later in those laws (6;16), Rambam explains his view that the sanctity of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount was not affected by the destruction of the First Temple and Exile to Babylon, in contrast to the rest of Israel.  It’s because the sanctity of Jerusalem stems from the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Once that came to Jerusalem, it doesn’t go away. Ever.

Mikdash is about Shechinah; true, we serve Hashem through sacrifice, but the bottom line is about the Divine Presence. What does that mean? In Guide for the Perplexed III; 45, Rambam portrays it as a place that would teach all who went there to have the proper awe for Hashem. It would counter idolatry, both by being as beautiful and exalted as any idolatry and also by opposing their most pernicious beliefs.

The Holy of Holies was in the west, for example, to counter the worship of the rising sun (Rambam references Yehezkel 8;16, where the prophet was shown people in the courtyard of the Temple turning their backs to the Sanctuary, bowing to the sun); cherubim were placed on top of the Ark to remind us of the belief in prophecy (which Rambam insisted had to be mediated through angels, since humans cannot speak directly with Hashem); the priests were free of blemishes to avoid people looking down on them, and were dressed to impress; and the rules and limits on entry, enforced by the Levites, gave a sense of seriousness and awe to the endeavor.

Seeing all this, visitors would acquire important character traits, such as humility, compassion, soft-heartedness. All brought about less by the experience of the experience of the building, the rules for entry, and the staff serving there, not the sacrifices.

A More Mystical Version: Ramban

In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban suggests another goal, continuing the experience of Sinai. Ramban thinks Hashem was telling Moshe that the exact Presence revealed at Sinai would inhabit the Mishkan, the Desert Tabernacle (and its successors), albeit hidden away, as it were, in the Holy of Holies. Besides giving a reason for the Mikdash that has nothing to do with sacrifice, Ramban’s version sees the event at Sinai as unique only for how public it was. In terms of how closely we could feel the Presence, Sinai was just the beginning of what was always supposed to be true.

I can’t explain that more clearly since we’ve limped along without it for almost two thousand years. I believe, though, that Ramban would say we could feel the difference between a world where we can be in close proximity to the same Divine Presence as appeared at Sinai, and the God-hidden world we now inhabit. Going to Jerusalem for holidays would be spiritually enriching both for how it affected us and also for our tasting once again of a greater closeness to Hashem.

Making It Real

I know from experience that this can all seem distancingly theoretical, so let’s make it a bit more real. Sefer HaChinuch notes that the Jewish people become obligated to build a Temple when the majority of the Jewish people are living in Israel. For centuries, that was a pipe dream, something that would “obviously” only happen with the advent of the Messiah. Yet, as this article lays out, forty percent of world Jewry now lives in Israel, and experts think it will go over fifty percent in the next twenty years.

That will bring many important halachic changes, but among them will be the question of Temple rebuilding. There are significant challenges (such as knowing the exact location of the altar and what to do about the other buildings there right now), but it will soon become a more pressing issue than we realize. What I have been trying to suggest here is that it is an event we can anticipate with excitement, whatever our feelings about sacrifices. We can hope for the day we once again can feel closer to Hashem, can experience Hashem more tangibly, than anything we’ve experienced so far.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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