Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the portion Terumah, prayer, sacrifices, the synagogue, and more

The weekly portion of Terumah discusses some matters involving the portable Tabernacle the Israelites used for sacrifices while they were in the desert. We read the command that the Israelites must bring material to construct the Tabernacle and its contents, the building of an ark that will contain the Stone Tablets containing the Decalogue, the ark-cover, the cherubim, the lampstand, the curtains, the boards, the veil which was a partition between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the Tabernacle, the altar for burnt-offerings, and the court of the Tabernacle. The details about all the items are only sometimes clear.

  • What is the meaning of Terumah? Rashi states that it means separate. God is saying set apart for Me some of your possessions. The R. Alcalay “Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary” translates it as “gifts.” The root of the word rom means “rise,” signifying “exalted.” Which one fits Terumah? All of them?
  • It should not disturb anyone that words can have many meanings, even contradictory meanings. An example is the musical term “concerto.” In Latin, it means “to debate” and “to dispute.” In Italian, it is the opposite, “to come together” and “to agree.”
  • More significantly, very few people consider what “concerto” and Terumah Is it ok to remain ignorant of definitions? Isn’t it more enlightening to delve into meanings? Doesn’t it open the mind to other things?
  • The ancient rabbis even sought meanings in the biblical names. They commented on Genesis 32:29 that Israel means “prince of God,” a marvelous title. We are told Jacob was given his name in Genesis 25:26 because he held on to his twin Esau’s heel, heel being the root of the name Yaakov.
  • If Maimonides is correct in stating that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices, why does the Torah spend so much time giving details about the Tabernacle and sacrifices?
  • When Maimonides says this, is he implying that God did not creates humans to spend their time acting as menial sycophantic servants who praise their master at every available time and never neglect a moment to do something for their master? This is not why God created humans. We do not know and will never understand why we are created. But it is clear that God does not need flatterers. Maimonides emphasizes that the Bible states that God placed intelligence in humans and wants them to use it to better themselves and society.
  • Some people say that the purpose of the Tabernacle and later temples is because God wanted to live with us. He was creating a close relationship. Isn’t this idea an anthropomorphism, depicting God in a human form? Do we need God with us always? Shouldn’t we be like mature children who leave their parents’ homes?
  • Most people realize that after the second temple was destroyed in the year 70, the synagogue took its place. For example, we have arks in synagogues containing Torah scrolls, a remembrance of the temple ark which held the Decalogue. We also have a perpetual light above the ark to remind us of the menorah, the candelabrum in the temple. We are told that prayers replace sacrifices. When Maimonides said that God doesn’t need nor want sacrifices, would he say the same about prayers? Do prayers work? Does God answer them? If not, why do we pray?
  • Rashi, relying on views in the Talmud, contends that the command to build the Tabernacle came after the people worshipped the Golden Calf. The Israelite misbehavior with the calf shows they needed a physical structure to worship God. They say that biblical narratives are not always in chronological order.
  • If the command to build the Sanctuary came after the worship of the calf as a consequence of that worship, why didn’t the Torah place this section after that episode? While we may agree with the principle that events in the Torah are not necessarily set in chronological order, shouldn’t we ask why the chronological order was disrupted in each case?
  • Should we disagree with Rashi and say the Torah commanded the building of the Sanctuary before the story of the golden calf to show that there is no relationship between the Tabernacle and the golden calf and that a “holy place” was necessary to inspire the people?
  • The command is in Exodus 25:8: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” The Aramaic translation Targum Onkelos changes it to read: “They should make before Me a Sanctuary, and I shall cause My Shekinah to dwell among them.” Targum Onkelos adds “Shekinah” to describe the human feeling of God’s presence either in heaven or on earth. (The term Shekinah is based on the Hebrew shaken, “to dwell”). The verse does not say that when the Sanctuary is built, God will dwell in it, but that God will dwell “among them.” It will cause the people, as stated in Targum Onkelos, to feel God’s presence.
  • Many people think that the Shekinah is a being apart from God. Isn’t this a polytheistic concept that there is a divine being other than God? Doesn’t it make more sense to understand Shekinah as a description of the human feeling of God’s presence in our lives?
  • We do not know when the first synagogue was created. Some scholars suppose that the first synagogues were gatherings for study and discussions. Others say that when the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, they created synagogues to replace the destroyed Temple as a place for worship. Ultimately, they say, synagogues were also built in Israel so that when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Jews already had these places for public prayers, Torah reading, and study.
  • The Tabernacle’s Menorah is one of the symbols of the State of Israel instead of the Star of David because, while the six-pointed star is called the Star of David, it is highly doubtful that David knew anything about it. On the other hand, the biblically-mandated Menorah lit up the Tabernacle in the days of Moses and, later, the Temples and, therefore, was an inspiring religious symbol.
  • Rashi, who fills his biblical commentary with midrashic homiletical notions, relies on the Babylonian Talmud 26b to highlight the importance of prayer. He states that just as his father, the patriarch Abraham, instituted the morning prayer service and his son Jacob the evening prayer service, Isaac created the afternoon prayers. He said this is implied in Genesis 24:63, “Isaac went out to converse (Hebrew, lasuach) in the field toward evening.”
  • Rashi’s grandson Samuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, disagreed strongly with his granddad’s approach to the Torah. He said none of the proof texts support the view that the patriarchs instituted prayer. The term lasuach, as in Genesis 2:5, means grow. The Torah says Isaac went out to plant trees and supervise his employees.
  • In his Code of Jewish Law, Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1. Maimonides considers prayer “a positive command to pray each day, as the Torah states in Deuteronomy 11:13, ‘Serve Him with all your heart.’” But he continues by saying the sages gave this interpretation to the verse. “The number of prayers is not indicated in the Torah, neither is the form of prayers in the Torah nor does the Torah set a time for prayer.”
  • Nachmanides, Ramban in Hebrew, glosses Maimonides’ Code and states, “The concept of prayer is certainly not obligatory.”
  • Maimonides states in his Code, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2, the way to find love and fear of God, is to see and think about God’s wonderful deeds here on earth. By doing so, people come to know
  • Let’s return to the question, “Why do we pray?” Let’s take it a step further. Maimonides tells us in his Guide for the Perplexed 3:17 that divine providence does not extend to individuals, nor is God involved when a leaf falls from a tree. He writes that he accepts Aristotle’s philosophy and defines divine providence as human intelligence. It is human’s intelligence that is divine, not an act by God. People must improve their thinking and not rely on God because God will not help them. The synonyms for “providence” are wisdom, foresight, and prudence. If we accept this view, why pray?
  • We should also ask, why do we say the outdated prayer instituted in Babylon for the health of its Jewish leaders at the onset of the Shabbat musaph service? Why do we request God to restore sacrifices in the Shabbat musaph amidah? Why do we thank God at the start of the daily services for not making us female?
  • We need a new understanding of “praying.”
  • The Jewish prayer book is not a collection of petitions to God. It is a compendium of ancient ideas collected together to make us think, and by thinking, we are encouraged to improve ourselves and society. The siddur, the prayer book, is also not designed to prompt us to accept as true what is said. There are mystical ideas, among others, that rational thinkers should not think are true. But they should make us think.
  • People should not rush through the prayer but read it slowly and seek its meaning or lesson. For example, most people think the popular Friday night song lecha dodi, “come my beloved to greet the Sabbath,” is a delightful song about the weekly Shabbat. This is not true. The prayer was composed by Shlomo ha-Levi Alkabetz (about 1500 – 1576), a mystic and poet living in Safed, Israel. It is a poem about the supposed Sefirot, ten parts of God which, according to mystics, became separated. The poem calls on the parts to come back together for the messianic age, the great Shabbat, will begin when they do.
  • The Tabernacle had an interesting design. For example, there were six areas of “holiness” around the “holy of holies.” The areas get smaller and smaller as they near the center. The largest site has almost no restrictions. As the areas get closer to the center, the restrictions increase. Why? Is it because the holier a thing is, the more careful we should use it? But isn’t this a wrong explanation? There is no such thing as holiness. An item becomes “holy” if we use it properly. Perhaps the opposite is true. The restrictions emphasize that “holiness” is not important. What is essential is our behavior.
  • Some say that God ordered the Tabernacle to be a tent because the Israelites lived in tents, and God did not want a solid building to elevate Himself. This is obviously untrue. The Israelites were traveling in the desert; if they had a Tabernacle, it had to be transportable.
  • In verse 25:17, God orders the Israelites “make an ark-cover of pure gold. This was placed over the wooden box ark (25:10-11), plated with gold, that contained the Decalogue. Two cherubim with wings covered the kaporet, the cover (25:17-20). What, if anything, is the significance of this cover?
  • Many Christian translations use “mercy seat” as the meaning of the Hebrew This translation reflects the view that God comes and sits atop the ark. It is clear that this is not a literal translation.
  • What were the cherubim? Rashi, relying on the view of ancient rabbis, states they had faces of children. The biblical commentator Bekhor Shor said they were winged oxen. Rashbam, Hizkuni, and others held that they were birds. Why did each say what they said? What is clear is that, like virtually all the Tabernacle items, the Bible is not clear precisely what they were.
  • Why were they placed over the ark?
  • The ark had two, some say four poles to transport it in the desert. These poles were required to be always inserted on the side of the ark and not moved. Apparently, this was so that the Israelites in later times could take the ark out of the temple and use it for other purposes, such as to show it to the people and inspire them.
  • The ark was taken to the battlefield in the biblical book of 1 Samuel, chapters 4 and 5. The people thought they were bringing God to battle for them. It did not work. They lost the war and the Philistines captured the ark. What does this teach us about religious items? Does the wearing of a star or mezuzah around one’s neck protect the wearer? Does the mezuzah on the house doorpost protect the house? Isn’t the mezuzah on the doorpost simply a reminder to the Jew to observe the divine commands?
  • Why does the portion Terumah end in the middle of chapter 27 and place the two verses of the law of oil for the Tabernacle lamp in the next biblical portion, which begins with the rules concerning the priests? Shouldn’t the directions for the oil go together with the laws for the lamp?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.