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SHABBAT SHALOM: It takes a nation to build a sanctuary

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin March, 01 2001

"They shall make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them." (Ex. 25:8)

If Judaism is a religion, how ought we treat those Jews who are not interested in keeping the rituals? To what extent must religious leadership meet every Jew at least halfway and try to accept and even embrace those who seem far removed from our traditions?

A careful textual study of this week's Torah portion should provide the answer.

When was this commandment to build a sanctuary first presented by God? Strangely enough, Rashi maintains that these instructions were given "the day following Yom Kippur," some four months after the Revelation at Sinai (which was described at the end of last week's portion).

This confused chronology is not unique. Rashi, commenting on 24:1, tells us that all the events of chapter 24 "were spoken (and actually occurred) before the Revelation at Sinai"; in effect that whole chapter 24 chronologically belonged in the beginning of Yitro, one portion earlier than it actually appears.

Why does the Torah record the sprinkling of the blood (Ex. 24:6) over all the Jews and the command to erect the sanctuary immediately after the revelation - when these incidents should have been recorded in other places if the Bible were following a strict chronological sequence?

The answer to this question has to do with the nature of the Jewish nation and the Jewish religion.

The first furnishing constructed for the sanctuary is the Ark of the Covenant, the most important feature of the Sanctuary because it encased the tablets of testimony, the Torah: "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood." (Ex.25:10)

The Midrash points out that the rest of the account of the construction of the various furnishings and accoutrements, the command is given to Moses in second person: "You shall make...." The main exception to this formulation is the ark: "And they shall make ...."

The Midrash explains this difference: "Said R. Yehuda son of R. Shalom, God said 'they' so that everyone shall come and be involved in the construction of the ark in order that all shall have a share in the Torah." (Exodus Raba, 34:2)

The very first introductory verse is a similar exception, "and they shall make Me a sanctuary." Here too the grammatical form stresses the fact that the sanctuary and the ark specifically are to be made by all of Israel and not only by the specific artisans who may have been commissioned to do so. And herein lies a crucial lesson for all generations.

Israel is both a family-nation as well as a faith-religion. The earlier portions of the Book of Exodus stress the national element, while the Revelation at Sinai, with its catalog of laws and statutes, stresses the religious element.

By their very nature, nations are inclusive; members are citizens regardless of their devotion to the state.

Members of a specific faith community, however, are generally adherents of a religion only if they practice its precepts.

While the Revelation at Sinai signals our emergence as a religious group, the Bible wants to emphasize that the entire nation of Israel must be included in our religious framework. This means that the Israelite leadership must do everything in its power to include the entire nation in the religious enterprise.

Each generation must be inspired to publicly declare its commitment to the revelation and the blood of sacrifice and commitment must be sprinkled over every single member of the nation. This is why the national acceptance appears after the revelation; even after we become a religion, we still must maintain our concern for the entire nation.

Indeed, the Bible is telling religious leadership that it is their responsibility to extract commitment from every Jew through inspiration and loving concern.

After all, the very beginning of the revelation is: "I am the Lord thy God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the land of slavery." God demonstrated his love and concern for every Jew even before they accepted his commandments.

This Divine concern goes one step further. The religious faith of Israel presents a concept of a non-corporeal universal Deity who cannot be contained even by the expanse of the heavens.

However, the sin of the golden calf demonstrated that the Israelites had not yet reached the spiritual and conceptual level to enable them to relate to the Almighty without the inspiration of a physical Sanctuary.

Hence, because our religion is concerned not only with the elite intellectuals and spiritualists but rather with the entire nation, immediately after we are forged as a religion at Sinai came the two commands: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, let them make an ark."

The entire nation must share in and have a share of the Torah, we must meet the nation's needs halfway by allowing them all to get involved in constructing a sanctuary. The family-nation became strengthened by the Revelation at Sinai, and that religious revelation must find its way into the hearts and mind of every Jew.

From this perspective, we can appreciate an added dimension to the figures of the cherubs which adorned the ark-cover protecting the Torah: a male and female embracing each other with the faces of children (B.T. Yoma 54a). The image is clearly that of family: husband, wife and children.

Our religion is both protected by and must relate to the entire family of Israel. Just as a parent can never divorce a child, God will never divorce even the most errant Israelite. "You are My children even when you do not act like My children," declares the God of Israel according to our Talmudic Sages. Such is the all-encompassing and all-embracing love of a religion which is committed to every single child of its nation.

Shabbat Shalom

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