Do Jews need a specific site to convene with the Divine


Exodus 27:20-30:10

Ezekiel 43:10-27

What would the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple mean to modern Jews?

Every so often, there is a call for the reconstruction of the Temple on its original location, the Temple Mount, now occupied by one of Islam's holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock.

Such a project would have to deal with the logistical and philosophical problems connected to the destruction or relocation of that magnificent house of worship.

Additional political and technical problems arise from a reading of the elaborate activities of the priesthood in this week's Torah portion: How would the priesthood be reconstituted? Would the High Priest predict the future by casting the sacred dice called the urim and the tumim? Would the sacrifice of animals be reinstituted? Would the High Priest wear the ornate holy vestments prescribed in Parashat Tetzaveh?

At Jerusalem's Yeshivat Kohanim (Academy of Priests), 10 men who claim priestly ancestry answer those questions by studying the priestly duties that were performed before the Temple was destroyed. The same duties, these men believe, will have to be performed by them or their offspring when the Temple is finally rebuilt.

In spite of these students' preparation for the priesthood, most modern Jews have little interest, if any, in supporting or resurrecting these ancient cultic customs.

The response of the overwhelming majority of liberal Jews to the construction of a new Temple in Jerusalem would be one of disinterest because Jews have outgrown the notion that they require a specific site to commune with God.

In contrast to the authors of Tetzaveh, who concentrated on the necessary activities and trappings of the priesthood, the biblical commentators focused on instructions for building the Tabernacle — the portable tent of meeting.

In so doing, they hoped to extend the places where God might be found.

They justified perceiving God inside, as well as outside a Temple, by teaching that one of God's instructions — "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them" (Exodus 25:8) — should be taken to mean that no structure is sufficiently large or grand enough to contain God.

A careful reading of the text reveals that the Tabernacle was not a place in which God dwelled. Rather than serving as God's abode, the Tabernacle was a place where the people could gather for God to dwell "in them."

They believed that, ideally, God's prophetic message of justice resonates in each individual. The commentators were not alone in this viewpoint.

When King Solomon dedicated the First Temple, he articulated the limits of containing God in such a grand structure: "But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heaven of heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You; how much less this House that I have built!" (I Kings 8:27)

The prophets and psalmists, too, understood that no specific location can contain God. Rather, they saw the entire universe as God's abode: "Thus says the Eternal One:/ The heaven is My throne/ And the earth is My footstool:/ Where could you build a house for Me,/ What place could serve as My abode?" (Isaiah 66:1)

The psalmist also described the omnipresence of God:

"Where can I escape from Your spirit?/ Where can I flee from Your presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, You are there;/ if I descend to Sheol, You are there too./ If I take wing with the dawn/ to come to rest on the western horizon,/ even there Your hand will be guiding me,/ Your right hand will be holding me fast./ If I say, 'Surely darkness will conceal me,/ night will provide me with cover,'/ darkness is not dark for You;/ night is light as day;/ darkness and light are the same" (Psalm 139:7-11).

Just as God is depicted as filling the entire world, God is also understood to dwell in each human heart. When a priest serving in the ancient Temple was consecrated for Temple service, blood from the sacrifice of a ram was to be placed on his earlobe, thumb and right toe (Exodus 29:19-20).

Thus, the priest was not only an officiant, he was the equivalent of an altar — an instrument prepared for an encounter with God, just as the Tabernacle or Temple was so designated.

There is such a clear indication that Jews need not look any further than their own hearts to find the Temple of God, that it is surprising we still ask, "Where can I find God?"

The answer that Tetzaveh provides the reader is one that 18th-century Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev articulated with precision: "God can be found wherever people are willing to let Him in."