Sign In Forgot Password

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Terumah                      February 29, 2020 - 4 Adar 5780

02/20/2020 12:20:26 PM


“Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules.  Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.”

--Bob Dylan (1941-)

The Torah spends a good deal of time on the subject of sacrificial offerings.  So much so, that most of my bar and bat mitzvah students are often stuck with doing a speech about sacrifices, and we will put in a lot of effort together into finding something unique and interesting to talk about.  In the end though, it’s hard to get around the fact that sacrifices simply do not have much relevance within modern Jewish practice.  But I honestly often wonder, what would Judaism look like today if we were still committed to the ancient sacrificial cult?

The destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE ended the Jewish practice of ritual sacrifice, and Judaism was forced, as a result, to evolve new practices and methods in worship in order to maintain Jewish existence.  Highly structured communal prayer services took the place of the sacrificial cult and Jewish life was successfully able to decentralize, replacing the Temple with local community synagogues.  Jewish connection to the Divine, without sacrificial offering, was redirected towards doing good works, charitable giving and study, the foundations of what modern Jewish life is today.  However, even the modern Jew must acknowledge that according to our tradition, technically, the suspension of the sacrificial cult was never meant to be permanent.  Tradition teaches, in fact, that when the Mashiach arrives and the Temple is rebuilt, Judaism will revert to the practices of our ancestors who worshipped God exclusively through the practice of sacrifice.  Knowing this, I’m forced to admit that I’m not exactly ready for the Mashiach to arrive just yet.  Are you?  It is understandably unnerving to find that our modern sensibilities seem to be out of line with what appears to be a fundamental principle of Judaism.  I believe Judaism has survived to this day in large part because of its ability to be change, to adapt and to evolve its ideologies and practices so that it can be relevant to the times, forward thinking and resilient.  But perhaps it could be said that we are simply fooling ourselves, changing our belief system out of convenience, and straying too far from what Judaism was truly ‘supposed’ to be, from what the Torah had prescribed for us, and what God had in mind as the correct way for Jews to behave.

This week’s parsha, Terumah, seems to take us in a very different direction than where we were last week.  In last week’s parsha, Yitro, we are given the 10 Commandments, followed by a significantly long list of fundamental rules for ethical behaviour.  But this week, instead of continuing our lofty discussion of morality and ethics, we discuss the building of the Mishkan and the various precious metals, rare dyes, beautiful leathers and other expensive materials that go into its construction—a rather superficial and materialistic parsha by comparison.  Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem teaches that yes, this parsha is indeed materialistic, but the context here is critical to understand why this emphasis on material wealth is so important for the Israelites at this stage.  It would be incorrect to believe that building the Mishkan in this fashion is what God needs, because the Jewish understanding of the nature of God is that God does not require material goods.  People, however, sometimes do.  The Israelites are grappling with their understanding of God, and after seeing the awesome sound and light show at Sinai, they are craving the means to give God the highest compliment that they can, and demonstrate their devotion.  However, their expression of devotion is clearly derived from their only other source of knowledge of God-worship, ancient Egyptian paganism which places enormously high spiritual value on wealth (this is why Egyptian pharaohs and other persons of great importance were typically buried with vast collections of treasure).  The Israelites’ struggle between understanding what God requires of them, and their own desire to please Him in the only way they know how is ultimately exemplified by the Sin of the Golden Calf, which is simply the result of the Israelites fundamentally misunderstanding that in order to serve God, they must let go of their pagan-Egypt-centric preconceived notions of theology.

The Mishkan, and its materialistic beauty, were Judaism’s training wheels.  The Israelites required a vehicle with which to express their devotionalism which began in the form of wealth, and continued as the sacrificial cult.  No civilization in the ancient world worshiped their gods without sacrifice, because it was inconceivable for a human being living at that time to worship in any other way.  I honestly cannot imagine a world where modern Judaism continued the practice of ritual sacrifice because it would have been entirely incompatible with the modern world, that is, if Judaism could have survived to the modern era at all.  And if God is capable of creating human beings over millions of years of biological evolution, is not even more conceivable that God created Judaism through spiritual evolution?

In truth, I do believe in the Mashiach, and even the rebuilding of the third Temple.  But not for a moment do I consider my belief bound to the physical personhood of a Mashiach, nor the physical bricks and mortar of a third Temple building.  I admit that I don’t know in exactly what form I believe that the Mashiach will take any more than the Israelites who built the Mishkan in the desert could imagine what my Judaism would look like today.  All I can say for certain is that I believe that Judaism must continue to evolve.  In so doing, it may even shed more training wheels that we do not yet understand that we are currently depending upon as a crutch, all so that we can pursue our relationship with the Divine in the only way we know how.

Shabbat Shalom,

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781