Parshat Terumah: Perhaps the last thing we need is a Third Temple

The so-called Temple Mount is indeed the holiest site in Judaism, but not because the two temples stood there. It was not the presence of the Temples that made Mount Moriah sacred. Rather, they were built there because it was already the holiest site, and because the holiness of this site might lend importance and credibility to the Temple and its activities.

The fact that Jews today are prevented from praying on this site is outrageous. Muslims clearly respect no religion other than their own, and do everything they can to suppress the free expression of belief and hope of those who profess any faith other than Islam.

That the world – even the government of Israel – would deny anyone the right to pray at this site, especially the right of Jews, is craven pandering, if not outright obeisance to Muslims and their unhinged deployment of threats and terror to thwart any non-Muslim prayer anywhere, let alone at a place of uniquely Jewish significance.

Yet none of this has to do with the actual Temples of Solomon and Herod that once stood here. Because these were indeed, first and foremost, the temples of Solomon and Herod rather than temples of the A-mighty.

Much of what we know about the builders of these edifices, and the intrigues and corruption that characterized the activities within them, seems to have little to do with spiritual inclination, let alone elevation.

Which brings us to this week’s Torah reading – Parshat Terumah – which focuses on the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that G-d requests as an a earthly domicile for Himself so that he may “dwell in their midst” i.e. among the Israelites.

The call for the costly materials with which to fashion the Mishkan, and the precise esthetic specifications for it and its furnishings, would hardly seem appropriate for a temporary and portable pavilion designed to serve the needs of a people hastening toward the Holy Land. For, indeed, the call for the Mishkan occurs prior to the ill-fated reconnaissance mission that resulted in extending the sojourn in the desert to 40 years.

Hence it would seem a bit over the top to go through the effort and expense of making the Mishkan of gold, silver and copper, exquisite fabrics and precious lumber while rushing through the wilderness.

from Exodus Chapter 25

(1)The Lord spoke to Moses saying (2) speak to the Children of Israel and have them make for me a offering; from every person whose heart inspires generosity you shall take my offering. (3) And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; (4) blue purple and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; (5) ram skins dyed red, tachash skins and acacia wood (6) oil for lighting, spices for anointing oil and for the incense;(7) shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the breastplate. (8) And they shall make Me a sanctuary
and I will dwell in their midst.

Surely the Children of Israel, regardless of their means or aspirations, were then living out of Bedouin tents that were being routinely pitched and taken down as they made their way in the wilderness. Why then the sudden need for a gorgeous but temporary sanctuary which would, in short order, be supplanted by a grand temple in the heart of the Promise Land?

Yet, if we look carefully, we find absolutely no reference to, or call for, any temple once the Israelites have established themselves in The Land of Israel. The only temple the Torah references is the Mishkan. And there is no indication, or hint even, that it was for temporary use only.

If anything, the Torah, i.e G-d, seems to want the Mishkan to be His dwelling on earth in perpetuity. This, then, would justify all the effort, cost and artisanship needed to craft this masterpiece of transportable devotion.

Aside from the absence of any talk about a permanent temple, there are two key textual indications that G-d very much wanted the Mihskan to continue serving as a mobile sanctuary even after the conquest of Canaan.

In describing the design of the Ark of the Covenant we are told:

The poles of the ark shall be in the rings;
t
hey shall not be removed from it. (25:15)

No only is the ark, which is the heart of the Mishkan and the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies, designed to be portable, but the feature that makes it portable, i.e the poles whereby it is borne, may never be removed. This indicates not only that the Ark was intended for mobility, but that it must be ready for such transport at all times.

The second indication of the Mishkan’s permanent portability is in the earlier verse (8) where G-d says “and they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”. Notice how its says “in their midst” not “in its midst”. The purpose of the Mishkan was to enable G-d to dwell amidst His People – which would mean the constant moving of the Mishkan from tribe to tribe, from community to community once the Israelites had settled in their land

This would make a great deal of sense for a number of reasons. For one thing it would not give any one tribe or municipality an undeserved sense of superiority. For another, it would mean that every Israelite would have an opportunity, from time to time, to come into communion with the A-mighty and partake in the rituals and celebrations that are unique to the sanctuary. Furthermore it would enable the Kohanim (priests) and Leviiim (Levites) to be evenly distributed throughout the Land, thereby serving the needs of all people all the time. And finally – and perhaps most importantly – it would set an example for restraint and modesty by showing how G-d Himself has no edifice complex, and that He is ready to “dwell in their midst” no matter where they dwell.

We know that the Torah is disinclined toward human monarchy, and allows it only as a concession to the will of the people, should they demand a king.

I would suggest that when it comes to temples this is no less true. The Torah does not have any desire for grand temples, and if they do get built, this is at best a concession on G-d’s part, not a preference.

It is no coincidence that both temples were erected by monarchs, the very rulers for which the Torah shows little desire. The first temple is known as the Temple of Solomon; the second as the Temple of Herod. From what we know, neither was especially the Temple of G-d.

So, by all means, let us go up to Mt. Moriah to offer our prayers. But we should seriously think about whether we really want a third temple. It could be the last thing we need. Perhaps it would not be built by a king. Yet one can readily imagine all the dedication plaques announcing the names of the donors, and the size of their gifts. For unlike the Mishkan whose donors were those “whose hearts were inspired by generosity” our temples are likely to be built with a decidely less self-effacing ethos.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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