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Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 25:1-27:19
February 12, 2016

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exo. 25:8).” With this command, the Israelites begin their first major project as a community-the building of a portable sanctuary in the desert.

The Torah goes into great detail describing the architectural dimensions and the required building materials for the sanctuary. The ark is to be made of acacia wood and “Overlaid with pure gold-inside and out (Exo. 25:11).” Regardless of whether anyone ever sees the inside of the ark, it must still be fitted with “pure gold.”

This verse has been interpreted in many ways. One explanation found in the Talmud (Tractate Yoma) compares the ark to a scholar. “Any scholar who is not the same kind of person in private as in public is not a true scholar.”

Another book of the Talmud reports a power struggle between two great rabbinic leaders-Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah-for control of a Jewish academy. Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah wins out and Rabban Gamliel is deposed as leader of the Jewish community and head of the academy. It is reported that they immediately removed the guard who stood at the academy door and gave permission to all the students to enter the House of Study. Previously, Rabban Gamliel had limited attendance to those who were deemed “pure inside and out.” The Talmud notes that when the doors were opened to all, additional benches had to be brought in.

Rabban Gamliel, upon seeing this, became depressed. Why? According to the 19th century European scholar known as the “Gerrer Rebbe”, Rabban Gamliel had tried to allow only perfect students in. He thought he was protecting the quality of the school. When hundreds of new students joined the school he saw something amazing happening. By spending time in the Academy, learning and growing, these students in fact became “pure inside and out,” something that might not have occurred had they not been given the chance.

The “sanctuary of God” is not limited to the few, but open to all. Interpreting the “sanctuary of God” as a metaphor for this world, the story teaches that no one should be excluded because of race, color, creed, or sexual orientation. The “purity” and “holiness” of humankind is not judged on the basis of perceived “outer purity,” nor, for that matter, on the basis of assumed “inner purity.” We all stand before God in his/her sanctuary, with the potential for purity, holiness, and goodness “inside and out.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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