August 7, 2018

Make your shul a true Mishkan (Terumah)

Parshat Terumah begins with the instruction to construct a Mishkan (a tabernacle), and then proceeds to record the detailed measurements and necessary materials in order to do so.

Among the various elements listed in the parsha are the קרשים – the vertical beams that were the basis of the walls of the Mishkan. However, rather than merely commanding Bnei Yisrael to ‘make beams for the Mishkan’, we are told to ‘make the beams (הקרשים למשכן) for the Mishkan’ (Shemot 26:15), from which our Rabbis deduce that these beams come from trees with provenance. As Rashi explains, Yaakov understood that his descendants would build a Mishkan, so when he descended to Egypt he planted these trees and instructed his children that when they left Egypt, they should take this wood with them.

But surely this was unnecessary! Was it not possible for Bnei Yisrael to purchase, or even simply take wood from Egypt? According to Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Ta’am V’Da’at on Shemot 25:5), while there were such opportunities, ‘it would seems from here that there was a reason and value in planting trees that originated from the land of Israel, and just in the same way that Israel was praised for her fruit, she was also praised for her trees.’ Understood this way, there as a symbolic reason why the Mishkan had to be made from these trees, in order to metaphorically affix a label on the Mishkan that proclaims ‘Made from Israeli wood’, or ‘Product of Israel’.

However, a deeper idea can be drawn from this fact, which is that prior to Heinrich Heine’s identification of the Torah as the portable homeland of the Jewish people, the Jews regarded the Mishkan as their portable homeland, and though Bnei Yisrael were yet to enter Israel, each time that they entered the Mishkan whose walls were made with the beams that originated from Israel, they were entering a different land.

As we know, our synagogues are regarded as miniature sanctuaries, and one of the wonderful things about many modern synagogues is that they are furnished with items and furniture that originate from Israel. Moreover, most synagogues recite a prayer for the State of Israel. But while both are positive, neither of these are enough to achieve the goal of regarding a synagogue as a portable homeland. Instead, synagogues should be places where Israel is a regular topic of discussion, and where the experience of being in synagogue – whose centrepiece is the Torah that ‘came from Zion’ (Isaiah 2:3) – is inextricably linked with our homeland.

So if you are reading this outside of Israel, and if you are planning to visit your synagogue this Shabbat, take a moment to think about how you can make your synagogue into a true miniature sanctuary so that wherever you are, it feels like home!

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