1 Adar 5774 / Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2014
In this week’s portion, Terumah, we find God instructing Moses to accept gifts (in the form of precious metals, fabrics, etc.) from those who are so moved to give, in order to construct a portable sanctuary (the “Tabernacle”) so that the Divine presence would continuously dwell amongst the Israelites. We are then provided with intricate instructions for how to build the Tabernacle, as well as some of the other ritual items meant to accompany it, such as an alter, a menorah, etc.
The major question I have is: why was there a need for a physical structure at all? God communicated with Moses absent such structure, and we know that our tradition holds that the prophets who came later on also did not need to rely on such structures to have a connection with the Divine. With a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire leading the Israelites during day and night, why was there a need for the Tabernacle (or any physical structure)?
Perhaps the Israelites, who had recently left Egypt and already shown a knack for returning to idolatrous ways (see, e.g., the golden calf incident) that were the norm for them during their centuries of enslavement, didn’t have an understanding or appreciation of the Divine as omnipresent. I can imagine them asking: where was this supposedly omnipresent God who allowed us to be slaves for hundreds of years?
Today, there are a number of conversations taking place in the Jewish world as to whether or not centralized physical structures remain necessary. Many synagogues are struggling to afford (let alone fill with people) buildings much larger than they need as independent prayer groups and communities (often comprised of young adults) sprout up and synagogue membership declines. JCCs aren’t being frequented as often, as their fitness club revenue model struggles to compete with the large number of gym options that exist for consumers. Institutions that used to take up 5 floors in office buildings are now taking up 2 or 3 floors as they contract.
What do you think?
This Shabbat, reflect on your experiences with centralized Jewish communal structures. Have those structures played a significant role in your own life? Have your experiences with such structures been overwhelmingly positive or negative? What role do you envision such structures playing in the future?