PARSHAT TERUMAH

A HOLY PLACE

“They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.”   (Exodus 25:10)

            When I was a child, my parents’ bedroom was totally off-limits to me.  The only time I ever went in there was occasionally when I was sick, and my mom would let me lie in her bed.  Otherwise, I never crossed the threshold into their room.  I guess they were better parents than me.  I have many memories of when my children were young, waking up to find them sleeping on our floor, or even crawling into our bed.

            The idea that a place is off-limits makes it special; religious people may even use the word “holy.”  In synagogue we have multiple activities throughout the building.  But the sanctuary is kept closed except for worship services and other special activities.  We must dress nicely in the sanctuary, not eat or drink, and men (and sometimes women) are expected to cover their heads.  And at the front of the sanctuary is the holy ark.  No one may step into the ark except at those sacred moments when we remove or return the Torah scrolls.

            This week introduces the idea of a holy space.  The Israelites are commanded to build a portable tabernacle which they will carry through the wilderness.  In the center of the tabernacle is the Holy of Holies, where the tablets of the covenant will be kept.  (After the Golden Calf, it will be both the broken and unbroken tablets.)  This tabernacle will become the model for the holy Temple in Jerusalem, which King Solomon will build.  There are different areas of the Temple where different people are allowed to enter.  There is a section for everyone including non-Jews, a section for women, and finally a section for the kohenim or priests.  But in the Holy of Holies, at the center of the Temple, only the High Priest can enter.

            Today’s synagogues are built following the pattern of the tabernacle and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  The ark has become the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space in Judaism.  One stands when the ark is open and avoids turning one’s back to the ark.  It establishes a key idea in our tradition, that not all locations are the same.  Many religions have sacred spaces.  Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca, Hindus have the River Ganges, and Shintu’s have Mt. Fuji.  And Jews build synagogues in such a way that when they pray, they face towards their holiest place – Jerusalem.

            In the recent negotiations with Hamas for the release of the hostages, Hamas made a demand that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem be off-limits to Jews.  Israel would never agree to this demand.  Yet I remember touring Israel shortly after the Six Day War, and visiting the Western Wall, liberated by that war.  I thought about going up to the Temple Mount, but there was a large sign, “No Jews Allowed.”  It was not put there by Arab authorities.  It was put there by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.  They were concerned that if a Jew went up there, he or she might accidently step into the area where the Holy of Holies was.  Even after the Temple was destroyed, this holiest place was off-limits to Jews.

            In our tradition, we speak about the separation between kodesh and hol, between the holy and the profane.  There are holy places, holy times, and holy relationships.  I have often remarked that we live in a world that has lost its sense of holiness.  We need to consider whether there are places, either at home, in our community, or somewhere in the world that are truly set apart and special.  Whether our bedroom, a spot in a nearby park, or a holy place overseas, can we find places where we sense, God dwells here?