Terumah: Placing Torah Crowns on our Heads

The Ark as depicted in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark

Many writers and scholars have marveled at the ‘eternality of the Jew’, that in spite of dislocation, persecution, oppression expulsion and even genocide the Jews have survived the vagaries of time.  Many would attribute this remarkable fact to the hidden Divine providential hand.

Baruch, or Benedict Spinoza, a pantheist and one of the founders of modern Biblical criticism, would have nothing of this fanciful and fantastic thinking. For Spinoza, the ‘secret’ of Jewish continuity had absolutely nothing to do with God, but rather an indisputable fact: the Jews did not disappear, not in spite of but because they were persecuted and oppressed.  Jews were actively excluded from the family of Europe, and therefore they were forced to maintain their own distinctive identities and communities.  In his Theological Political Treatise, written in 1670, Spinoza predicted that if Europe were to emancipate its’ Jewish community and open their doors to Jewish integration, the Jews would disappear on their own accord.  In essence, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism provided the glue which tied Jews to their community and their traditions.

Sadly, Spinoza’s words for large numbers of Jews are being realized 350 years later.  According to the most recent 2020 PEW report of American Jews the largest growing demographic in the Jewish community are “Just Jews”, characterized by weak ritual observance, communal affiliation, literacy, and higher intermarriage rates.  We should not be surprised; in a multi-cultural and open society based upon primarily autonomous choice, identity and self is not a given- determined by cultural origin and the surrounding society, but the product of active decision making.  Modern Jews in this open world need to craft and construct identities, and without the raw materials the chances they will construct distinctively Jewish lives are rather low.

What are these raw materials and items needed to craft a rich Jewish identity that will endure?  The construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels, the subject of this week’s parashah, commands the Jewish people in the desert to create a public structure at the center of the wilderness encampment which will signal to the entire community its ultimate values.  In later history, the Tabernacle will be replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish people.   Each of these objects have their own symbolic meaning, but in the center- the holy of holies, is the Ark of the covenant, containing the tablets of the law. It is from there that God will address the Jewish people, from above the ark between the two cherubim on the ark’s cover (Ex. 25:22).  Thus, the ark symbolically places the Torah, and by extension the voice of God, at the very center of the camp.  For this reason, the decorative golden border adorning the top of the Ark (zer Zahav) is seen in rabbinic thought as the ‘crown of Torah’.

This central concept is not simply about some ancient tabernacle and box; consider our own synagogues. Every time the Torah is taken out of the ark with a silver crown atop and in a procession, we are referencing this very concept. We are comparing the Torah to a monarch, and we as the subjects. We are announcing to all that the Torah is our central concern, our central commitment.  While some may give allegiance to a human sovereign, in the Torah procession we declare our loyalty to the God and God’s Torah.

However, the Temple is not simply a symbolic representation of the values of a community, because a community is in essence simply the collective ethos and expressions of thousands of individuals.  To place our Jewish values in the middle, it cannot be something external to us, but pierce our very being.  The Ark in the rabbinic imagination represents not only the Torah, but the person who embraces the Torah and becomes one with its teachings.  Maimonides, the celebrated 12th century philosopher and scholar, writes:

The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting, and ready for each Jew, as [implied by Deuteronomy 33:4]: “The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” Whoever desires may come and take it (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:1).

In these words, Maimonides calls to us.  The crown of the Torah should not simply be on top of an ark, or even a Torah scroll, but should be claimed by us.  In the early Middle Ages, Rabbinic responsa cite a custom (that they objected to), that on the holiday of Simchat Torah the person receiving the last Aliyah upon finishing the annual Torah-reading cycle would take the Torah crown and place it on his own head!  I am sure that in synagogue if people would see such a thing, they would strongly object, but in fact this strange custom seemed to be a dramatic enactment of the very teaching of the rabbis.  The person who just has received the last Aliyah ‘desires the Torah’ and takes that Torah for him/herself.  In this dramatic act, the person is demonstrating that the Torah cannot remain something in a Temple or an ark.  In needs to reside in the heart of every Jew.   It is easy to keep Torahs hidden away in an ark; it is much harder to allow this Torah to shape the personality of a human being, and by extension a community.

How does one take an eternal text and internalize it?  Here too the very crafting of the ark provides the key.

Upon building the Ark four rings were placed upon the four corners of the ark.  When the Ark would be moved, it would be moved through poles inserted via these rings on both sides of the ark.  One would think that like other objects in the tabernacle, these poles were simply instrumental, and inserted when traveling.  However, the Torah commands that these poles were never to be removed, even when the Ark was at rest! (Ex. 25:15).   In all the medieval catalogs that list the positive and negative mitzvot, this is included as a Biblical prohibition.  One of these works, the anonymous Sefer HaChinukh (Spain, 13th century), states that the Ark is representative of the Torah, the highest value, and therefore if the Ark in an emergency needs to be moved, the Ark needs to be ready to be lifted to prevent any mishap.  However, we might want to extend this idea and see it as a metaphor.  It is not enough to place a Torah in an Ark, but the Ark itself has to be ready to move.  For Torah to be transmitted and to be relevant, it must be a Torah that can be practiced in any place and any time.  Only if the Torah is actively practiced wherever we are can we hope to protect its teachings. The Torah is not something that is meant to reside in some secluded place, but to live in the life of the people.  Only then does it become the center value of the Jewish people.

This is a critical teaching- and challenge- for us today.  We need to strategize as how we can transmit our values and make the Torah a living Torah. As far as I can see, there is not a Jew who has the magic formula to transmit tradition in a meaningful way with 100% effectiveness. The fact is that access to Jewish life has never been greater, and despite this, we are always in competition with the culture ‘out there’, and that culture is winning.

We began citing the striking and unfortunate attrition of Jews from Jewish life, the rise of the “Just Jewish”.  If you are reading this, I assume you are vested in Jewish life- spirituality, culturally and nationally. You do not consider yourself “Just Jewish”.  You believe Jewish life is not simply important for you, your family or those you know, but also for the world.  You are invested in carrying these values into the future and want to transmit it in such a way that the next generation feels inspired by these values and chooses this path for them and their families.

For decades parts of the Jewish community created identities molded out of the twin phenomena of pervasive anti-Semitism and support for the State of Israel.  To be clear, both are critical to a modern Jewish identity, but the Holocaust and the State of Israel will not provide the vast majority of American Jews the thick identity needed to survive, much less flourish.  When Israelis live in Israel and share the fate of the country and are ready to give their lives for the State of Israel, they make existential commitments to the Jewish people that most American Jews do not.  While we have seen an uptick of anti-Semitism and it is of great concern, anti-Semitism and persecution is not our core Jewish narrative the way it is for some Holocaust survivors. Spinoza’s analysis was essentially correct.

If so, what do we need to do to create an identity that is powerful, inspiring, and is something with which the next generations will want to identify.  I believe the answer is clear: we need to place the Torah crowns on our head.  We need to be like the Ark.  Torah has seventy gates of wisdom that are able to touch each of us in different ways.  Never before has our tradition been more accessible to a greater number of people.  Online resources and classes, in-person synagogue classes, as well as the proliferation of Jewish book publishing are only examples of what is available to us today.  The challenge is for each of us to set time every day to study Torah and deepen our own Jewish literacy.

However, study alone is not enough. A person needs to live what they study to make it real for them.  Jewish study needs to be coupled with Jewish practice; a person needs to be surrounded by mitzvot.  The rabbis teach that one mitzvah causes another mitzvah, meaning that with each mitzvah we perform we are inspired to do more.

In essence, just as the Ark was created in such a way to imprint upon everyone that the Torah is part of our journey, each of us in different ways need to see ourselves on a Jewish journey.  If we do that, our lives will be richer, deeper and inspired, and that will inspire those around us to grow as well.  Just like the poles of the Ark are never removed, the Torah and mitzvot we do will carry us as we move forward in our own life journeys.  We will become like the Ark and will claim the crown of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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