David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Terumah: The Golden Tent

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Before his death in 1227, Genghis Khan divided up his empire among his four sons with overall leadership given to his third son Ögedei, who was chosen by his father to be the Great Khan.

Genghis’s eldest son, Jochi, died six months before his father, and his two sons, Genghis’s grandsons, Batu Khan and Orda Khan divided his inheritance between them — in what is today southern Russia and Kazakhstan. Their tribes were known as the Blue Horde and the White Horde, respectively. Eventually, they conquered new territories, the two groups merged to become the Golden Horde (also known as the Kipchak Khanate).

The Golden Horde held the northwest part of the Mongol Empire — an empire which was the largest contiguous empire in history, covering some 24 million square kilometers (9.27 square miles) or 16.11% of the world (it was the second biggest empire of all time, surpassed only by the British Empire which by 1920 covered 35.5 million square kilometers (13.71 million square miles) or 23.84% of the world). The Mongol Empire stretched from Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East to the Sea of Japan, from Iran and Turkey to China.

Although the Mongols were feared as bloodthirsty and cruel, their dominance for 100 years (c. 1250-1350) had a stabilizing effect, known as Pax Mongolica, which improved the economic and social lives of people living under the Khans, due to improved trade and communications.

Reenactment of Mongol battle. (Public Domain, Official U. S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. G. S. Thomas/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1241 Batu was on the verge of conquering Vienna, when Ögedei Khan died, and all the Mongol chieftains were summoned back to elect the next Great Khan, in a gathering known as Kurultai. The Mongols would never get that far west again.

The Kurultai was an important aspect of Mongolian life. In a territory that vast, it was the gatherings of leaders around their central tent that reminded the people of their nomadic origins and ensured the unity of the empire.

The tent at the heart of the empire was central to crowning a new leader. Johann Schiltberger, a 15th-century German traveler, described the coronation of a new Khan as follows (cited on p. 210 in George Vernadsky, “The Mongols and Russia”):

“When they choose a king, they take him and seat him on white felt, and raise him in it three times. Then they lift him up and carry him round the tent, and seat him on a throne, and put a golden sword in his hand. Then he must be sworn as is the custom.”

The tent was so important, that it is likely to be the origin of the name Golden Horde.

Illustration of Batu Khan taking Suzdal in 1238, from “The life of S.Ephrosinia”, 18 century (CC BY-SA, shakko/ WIkimedia Commons)

The name may have originated with the yellow-colored tents that the Mongolia lived in, or may come from the golden-draped tent used by Batu Khan or by Uzbek Khan. Or it may be a corruption of the Mongolian words “sari ordu” meaning “central camp.”

Just as in Mongolian culture, the tent and encampment played an essential role for the Israelites during their 40-year trek through the desert. But instead of housing the king, it was the Divine Presence that was placed in the center of the camp.

Mongol expanstion in 13th century. (CC BY-SA Bkkbrad, Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God instructs Moses and the people about the construction of the Tabernacle, known in Hebrew as the mishkan. The mishkan was a tent made of fabric and animal hides, and contained the ark of the covenant, the menorah, the table holding the showbread and the golden altar.

The mishkan remained the focus of religious life for the next several centuries. The Talmud (Zevahim 118b) says that the mishkan stood in the desert for 39 years, in Gilgal for 14 years, in Shilo for 369 years, and in Nov and Givon for 57 years. True, once the Israelites realized they would remain in Shilo for such a long time they replaced the wooden sides of the desert mishkan with stones, but the tent-like structure of the fabric covering remained in place (Zevachim 112b). Even though the stones of Shilo were destroyed (Megillah 16b), the wool, linen, silk, hide and leather fabric that had been draped over the mishkan remained, and was hidden away in a safe place.

The Midrash (Tanna d’vei Eliyahu Rabba chapter 25) gives the reason for this:

Why does the mishkan remain hidden until today? Because it was made by good people out of the goodness of their hearts and it is difficult for the Holy One, blessed is He, to destroy anything made by good people out of the goodness of their hearts.

The Midrash alludes to another difference between the Temple and the Tabernacle. The root of the Hebrew word for Temple — mikdash — is kadosh, holy. The Temple is a site of holiness, and according to many opinions the site of the Temple remains holy to this day. But the root of the word for Tabernacle — mishkan — is Shekhina, the Divine Presence. This has no defined place, but represents the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Once the Divine Presence has left the site of the mishkan the area is no longer holy.

Both Temples were destroyed and the Jewish people exiled. But however far they spread throughout the Diaspora, the relationship to the Divine Presence, represented by the mishkan remained at the center of their lives.

Just as the Golden Horde and the Mongol Empire spread far and wide, yet remained deeply rooted in the tent of their nomadic origin, so too, the Jewish people return over and over again to the concept of the mishkan, and the Divine Presence that rests within it, no matter where they are.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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