Did you ever wonder what the true purpose of the tabernacle was in the wilderness? Its not as if the people are living in established communities and have pantries full of goodies. They are former slaves, wandering in the wilderness. God gives them the command from Mt. Sinai to make a portable building in which will be housed the ark of the covenant. In the outer courtyard of the tabernacle will be an altar to sacrifice animals for God.
The rabbis offer many ideas as to why the Jewish people were in need of a tabernacle. Some say that it was because of the sin of the golden calf- which is to occur in a few weeks. And there are those who say that not unlike the other cultures of the day, animal sacrifices to the deity was so common that the Israelites simply incorporated the practice into their religious cult. The sacrifices made the people feel connected to God. They could smell the odor and see the smoke and assumed that God could as well.
If we are to take our tradition seriously, we have to understand why God commanded the sacrifices and asked the Israelites to create a tabernacle in the desert. After all, the prophet Isaiah quoted God saying: “hear the word of the God, you chieftains of Sodom. ……What need have I of all your sacrifices? I am sated with burnt offerings of rams and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats… bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to me.”
Does God truly want animal sacrifices? If our only text were these passages from Isaiah, the answer would be surely not. Let’s look at this from a modern perspective. Are any of us here looking forward (as does parts of our tradition) to the day when the third Temple will be rebuilt and the courts of the Temple will again, as the Talmud says, run red with a river of animal blood? Not me. I can’t even look at raw meat.
I love animals and can’t believe that God would want us to kill animals for the sole act of killing animals without eating their meat or using their skins.
Following the understanding of the prophet Isaiah, animal sacrifices were not for God. They were never for God.
So the question is: Why the tabernacle commanded in parashah Terumah and later the Temple at all? There must have been a purpose in making these institutions a part of the religious life of the Jewish people.
Moses Nachmanidies, the Ramban (13th century. Spain) determined that the real covenant between God and the Jewish people was not that of cultic sacrifice. The real brit, covenant was about action, deeds, tangible, measurable human activity.
Religion is about connecting with others, and thereby connecting with God. There is a danger that religious life can be spiritualized to the point of total irrelevance to the life of the community. The relationship each one of us has with God is direct and requires no intermediaries. Therefore we can pray on the Long Island Railroad, in the library, on a day like today. We can relate to God without involving a single other human soul in this world.
God understood this and on Sinai, gave us a document that needed to be studied together and placed in a holy central tabernacle. Within the Torah- beginning with parashah Terumah, God gifted us a set of blueprints, six times longer than those for the creation of the world where the community needed to participate wholly in its building. Where they could invest their funds and their hearts- and eventually their souls.
God wanted the Israelites to commune and create in an active way for the betterment of all people. Al shlosha devarim- the world stands on three things, on Torah (learning) Avodah (prayer, or sacrifical worship in temple times), and Gemilut Hasidim (acts of loving kindness). In the building of the tabernacle, the ancient Israelites began to understand that God required all three for the Israelites to thrive in the world.
When asked why he joined the dangerous march with Martin Luther King, resulting in his imprisonment, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “as I walk, I am praying with my feet.” In life, God expects us to pray to with heart and soul and body.
So the tabernacle was given to the Israelites because they needed a tangible connection to their God and, in ancient Israel, people made that connection through animal sacrifice. The tabernacle was necessary for the people of that era. But as human society matured spiritually, the Temple was destroyed and the rabbis redirected our religious attention to study, to prayer, but most importantly, to deeds of loving kindness.
Sefat Emet, one of my favorite Hasidic commentators, determined that the people were to be the dwelling place of God, not the tabernacle. We each had gifts to give to God and as we gave them, we became part of the place where God dwelt.
There is no temple today. There is no mishkan today. So where does God’s presence dwell in our own era?
The answer must be in us, as was God’s original design. Connecting with each other, being united with the community and other communities, accepting and tolerating differences with love and understanding makes us part of the mishkan. Keeping Shabbat and the other ritual commandments, praying, performing acts of loving kindness makes us part of the mishkan.
V’yikchoo li terumah may’ate kol is hasher yid’veh’nu libo, teak’choo et terumati. Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts, you shall take gifts for Me, from every person whose heart so moves him. May we know our gifts and understand that they are meant to be given away. Our Terumot- our gifts create moments of connection and holiness. When we give them away, we make the world more whole and allow God to be felt in our lives.