Terumah – Portuguese Synagogues and Spiritual Aspirations

Gold, wood, silver, tapestry of wool and linen, and copper.  The vast amount of wealth poured into the Mishkan was remarkable, particularly as it was donated by former slaves.  What would this achievement have meant to them?  Why does the Torah spend so many parshiyot describing the Temple in such great detail?

Rabbi Obadia Sephorno (Italy 1475-1550) actually insists that relatively speaking very little was invested into the Mishkan.  Compared to the opulence of the Jerusalem Temple, the Mishkan was somewhat of a modest affair.  Furthermore, Sephorno says, that despite the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple, the Mishkan was a far more spiritual abode.  Upon the Mishkan’s completion God’s presence perceptibly dwelt in the appearance of a cloud of glory, which it did not do in the Temple.  In commenting on this irony, Sephorno makes the point ‘it is not the richness or size of a building which make it a place for the Divine Presence to rest amongst Israel, rather God desires those that fear Him and do His deeds, in order to dwell amongst them (Exodus 38:24).’

Homiletically, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany 1808-1888) says that the Mishkan is also a euphemism for us.  The pasuk states ‘Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).’  By ‘them,’ Hirsch explains that God is talking about us.  If we make ourselves like the mishkan then God will also dwell among us individually!

Taking Sephorno’s explanation to heart, in order to make ourselves like the Mishkan we need to prioritize content over style (though there seem to be style points too!).  Beautiful silver and magnificent paneling are no substitute for sincere worship and good deeds.

Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) of Amsterdam

Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) of Amsterdam

A synagogue, which today stands in for the Temple in Jersualem, as a ‘miniature temple’ (mikdash me’at), serves us best when it is a place that enhances and enables us to grow closer to God.  The Portuguese Jews understood this when they set their Synagogue floor plans to mimic the dimensions of the Temple.  Classically, Portuguese floor plans in Western Europe, in the Caribbean and in North America, all used a 1:2 ratio for the placement of the Tebah (relative to the size of the sanctuary), similar to the setting of the Holy of Holies relative to the size of the Mishkan.  This was done to remind them of their spiritual aspirations – to be a nation of priests, and to serve God sincerely.  (I have not yet measured our current synagogue floor plan!)

Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue of New York

Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue of New York

I’m reminded of this lofty goal each time I enter our sanctuary and see the words above the Hehal which read ‘Da Lifne Mi Ata Omed – Know before Whom you stand.’  Our lofty ceiling creates a sense of grandeur which we associate with the Divine and helps us to set our sights and aspirations heavenward.  In this sense, our building and space serve us well in our service of God.  May we be blessed to fill our communal and personal spaces with deeds that make them worthy of the Presence of God.


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