Shabbat Terumah 5779, 9th February 2019
When school children come to visit our Synagogue they are enthralled by the ark.
Their faces are a joy to watch as they see the curtains open and the scrolls inside are revealed, with their bells and decorated mantles. It is like the opening of a treasure house. For many of us, too, the opening of the ark for our Torah reading is the highlight of the service, a special moment when we are confronted with the Torah scrolls which are at the very heart of our religion.
Reading the description of the Sanctuary in our Sidra today, it is easy to get lost in the details. They seem distant and irrelevant. It feels a long way from the Sanctuary in the desert more than three thousand years ago to our Ark today. We do not even know if the Sanctuary in the desert was a historical reality. It seems unlikely that the Israelites took gold, purple and scarlet dyes and all the other expensive materials listed out of Egypt, or that they had the means to fashion them in the desert. It is more likely that the descriptions we read in these chapters of Exodus were based on the Temple in King Solomon’s time. They provided the people with an ideal on which the Temple was supposedly based, giving it legitimacy. This makes our relationship to the sanctuary even more problematic because Liberal Judaism has always changed references to the Temple in the prayers and abolished rituals relating to the priesthood, such as Pidyon ha Ben, the redemption of the firstborn son from a Cohen.
Yet, there is a clear and direct line from the Sanctuary to the Temple to the Synagogue. The Sanctuary as it is described is very similar to the Temple, though on a much smaller scale. Both had an inner and outer sanctuary and a holy of holies, where the ark of the Covenant was kept. Only the High Priests could enter, to offer sacrifices. Both were places of reverence and awe. When the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis made the Synagogue the new centre of Judaism. The ark was again the focal point, to be approached with awe and reverence, but this time, everyone, or at least every man, not only priests, could approach it. Above it shone the ner tamid, the eternal light, a symbol of the light that was kept burning continually in the Temple. The Torah was dressed in the priestly garments: a tunic, a breastplate and bells, representing the bells which had been at the bottom of the High Priest’s garment. Even within Liberal Judaism, which rejected the Temple, the ark and the Torah scrolls have remained at the heart of our Synagogue. They remain deeply embedded in Judaism of every denomination of Judaism, even humanistic Judaism which rejects the idea of God.
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, talked about ‘transvaluation’. By this, he meant that ancient symbols and rituals which appeared to have no contemporary meaning could be infused with new meaning. Thus, for example, eating kosher food has come to be seen by some non-Orthodox Jews as helping to maintain our Jewish identity, or remind us to be disciplined about what we eat. Of all Jewish symbols, the ark and the Torah are the most enduring. They have remained at the core of Jewish practice throughout the generations. They remind us of the past and our wanderings in the desert, but their resonance is far deeper. Their meaning has been transvalued from generation to generation so that these symbols of the ancient past have continued to live with us. In its origins, the Sanctuary was a place of exclusion, a place of awe where only priests could go. But now, the Torah is open to all. As the rabbis of the second century said after the Temple had been destroyed, the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, a place that belonged to no one, to teach that it should be accessible to everyone.
Each generation needs to find meaning anew for the ark and the Torah. For us today, the ark remains an object of reverence. It reminds us that we are in a holy place. Our place of prayer, our Sanctuary, is open to all, yet we strive to maintain that sense of reverence. It helps us to be aware of God’s presence. God is everywhere, yet we cannot always feel God’s presence and we strive for our congregation at prayer to be able to sense God’s presence here, in this special place. The Torah which is held in the ark is a reminder of God’s teachings. It is at the heart of our Synagogue as a reminder that we should study Torah and take its teachings to heart. Whatever we do should always be inspired by its teachings of love, compassion and justice . We host a multitude of activities, from Fish and Chip quizzes to concerts, talks and teas for refugees. All of them, we hope, will be infused with a spirit of openness and kindness. It does not mean we must always be serious. The Synagogue can and should be a place for laughter and joy. But we should never lose sight of why we are here.
May our Synagogue be a true Sanctuary, a place where we study Torah and put its teachings into practice through acts of kindness. And so may the words of our Sidra be fulfilled: ‘v’asu li mikdash ve-shachanti betocham - they will make me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.’
Photo: Davidbena [CC BY-SA 4.0]