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Whose House is it Really?

Human beings are fragile creatures. They need security and protection from the natural elements, animals and at times even from other people. People need a place to eat and sleep. Simply put, people need a place to dwell, a home. All of us recognize the tremendous hardship and plight of those who are homeless. None of us would trade positions with a homeless person for even one day.

Yet the most fundamental question arising from this week’s Torah reading, פרשת תרומה, is why does God need a house? God of the universe is not physical, so surely He is not in need of protection or security. He doesn’t need a place to retire at the end of the day. Yet the Torah tells us God said, “Make a sanctuary  for Me and I dwell among you.” It is also absurd to think that the physical confines of any structure could contain God.  Our Sages tell us that the first Holy Temple, the one built for Adam and Eve, was the universe. So what is the idea behind a house for God?

When we say a person dwells somewhere, we mean that the person can be found there. But even if the person isn’t home when we arrive, defining characteristics can be gleaned. By noticing the style of the home or the furniture, looking at the various rooms and decorations, the pictures, the trophies, and knickknacks lying about, we already know a lot about the resident. Colombo, the famous TV detective, would have no problem making accurate deductions from such information. Every object is there because of the special needs and interests of the person living there.  The house and contents often reflect the character and personality of the home owner. With a close friend, we may readily understand the house and contents. If it is a first time encounter, we begin to form an impression even before meeting.

God, in his divine wisdom, wants every person to have the opportunity to get to know Him. How can this feat be accomplished? One way is by first creating a unique and special structure, a בית המקדש, for this purpose. Second, requiring everyone to go there.  In a later Torah portion, parshat Re’eh, we find the command to appear in the Temple 3 times a year, Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot. (Devorim: 16:16)

When people visit the Temple and observe, they will find that every room, every object, and every activity in this building is designed to inspire and lead a person to a more intimate knowledge of God. The nation’s greatest scholars were also found there. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem also contained the chamber for the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel. Visitors then had the opportunity to encounter, learn and discuss legal and philosophic issues with Israel’s foremost religious authorities.

Let us take a brief look around this house. First, its continual and brightly glowing candelabra serves as a beacon summoning us to enter. God’s wisdom is the “light” we constantly seek and live by. אור, light, is a common metaphor throughout Tanach for Torah. Once inside we find a beautiful table set with freshly baked loaves of bread. Everyone knows how great that smell is. It looks and feels like the master of the house is preparing a banquet for us.  When we obey the word of God, our sustenance is assured.

Continuing on our tour of the house, we come upon the innermost chamber. In it is a large rock, the אבן השתיה, from which the Talmud tells us, God created the world. On top of the rock is an ארן, a chest, containing the Stone Tablets and a scroll of the Torah hand written by Moshe. The purpose of the world is to support the contents of this chest, the most treasured ideas of life. On top of the chest are two carved Cherubs, representing the concept of angels, the means by which God communicates with man.

A jar of “manna,” the food God provided בני ישראל with in the desert, was placed in front of the foundation rock. It reminds us that God will even breach the physical laws of the universe to insure our survival as a nation. Aaron’s staff, budding with almonds, also stands in front of the rock indicating his family’s role as the chosen caretakers of this house.

Strikingly, we notice that throughout the entire building there are no pictures or forms of the resident anywhere to be found. This absence is no accident but teaches us the most fundamental concept. The master of this house is none other than the one non-physical God of the universe. On the contrary, any image would convey a very serious, false notion about God.

By now we get the picture. Each idea reflected in the house, of course, can be pursued on a deeper level. Yet even for a child, basic necessary ideas about God are conveyed and embedded in his mind. Every feature of the house serves to inform us that there is a Creator of the universe and the Creator relates to man.  In that relationship man finds his ultimate fulfillment.

Perhaps, it is this idea that Rashi is referring to when he comments on the verse, “Make for Me a sanctuary…” explaining, “make for My (God’s) name a special house.” That is, the entire purpose of the house and every object placed in this house is for one goal. That goal is for people to know there is one place in the world where they can be inspired to learn the true ideas about God. 

In this way the second half of the verse, “and I will dwell among you,” also makes sense. Everyone, limited only by their intellectual interest and ability, will be filled with the knowledge of God. As well, the national mission of the Jewish people, to educate all people in the knowledge that there exists one, non-physical God, to sanctify God’s name in the world, will be fulfilled. Indeed, God will then be dwelling with us and we will merit His divine providence.

And if God didn’t provide a special place, we would complain, “Where should I go to learn these ideas?”

So I ask you, whose house is it really?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan