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Torah Sparks

February 12, 2005 - 3 Adar I 5765

Annual: Ex. 25:1 - 27:19 (Etz Hayim p 485; Hertz p. 326)
Triennial: Ex. 25:1 - 25:40 (Etz Hayim p 485; Hertz p. 326)
Haftarah: I Kings 5:26 - 6:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 500; Hertz p. 336)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


The Book of Exodus abruptly changes as we begin this week's Torah portion. It contains a minute description of the building of the Tabernacle, the materials needed for this project and its dimensions. Virtually the final fifteen chapters of Exodus focus on this important project. Yet why does the Torah devote so much space to this project? The Tabernacle was a portable house of worship which the Israelites built shortly after leaving Egypt. It served as the central place of worship up until the time of Solomon when the Temple was built in Jerusalem.

Having served pharaoh for so many years, the people of Israel were excited to be called on to build a place of worship for the God who had redeemed them from the house of bondage. Every Israelite was invited to contribute the necessary resources for this monumental project. Each person is told to give "as his heart so moves him." The people were not forced to contribute their time and wealth. The right to choose to participate in this project was one of the first lessons in freedom the people would receive during their sojourn in the wilderness.

The Torah goes on to describe the furnishings of the Tabernacle as well as the structure itself. We learn about the dimensions of the ark, the types of materials that would be used in weaving the coverings of the Tabernacle, and the various furnishings that would go into this structure. The people are told "Make me a Tabernacle that I might dwell among them." The tabernacle was not a house of God but a symbol of God's presence in the midst of the community.

Theme #1: Building Synagogues and Temples Yesterday and Today

Let them make me a Tabernacle that I might dwell among them. (Exodus 25:80)

Derash: Study

  • Thus said the Lord: 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? All this was made by My hand and thus it came into being - declares the Lord. Yet to such a one I look: To the poor and the broken hearted who is concerned about my word. (Isaiah 66:1-2)
  • (The building of the Tabernacle) can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, the father said to him, "My daughter, whose hand I have given to you, is my only child. I cannot part with her, neither can I say to you, 'Do not take her,' for she is now your wife. This favor I would ask of you; wherever you go to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter." Thus God said to Israel: "I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it; but this I would request: wherever you go make for Me a house wherein I may sojourn," as it says, And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus Rabbah 33:1)

Questions for Discussion

  1. In what sense does God dwell in the Tabernacle or in a synagogue? Do you experience God's presence in the synagogue? If so when and if not why do you think that is the case?
  2. What do you think we could do to make synagogues more spiritual? Note that the verse concludes that I might "dwell among them." How does the Tabernacle give us a sense that God dwells among the people?
  3. What is Isaiah's attitude toward the building of a Temple for God? What is the problem and what solution does he offer? Do you think this verse contradicts the sentiments expressed in Exodus?
  4. Have there been other places or times in your life you have experienced the presence of God? What were they? How can the architecture of a synagogue reflect imminence (His closeness) or transcendence (His distance from us)?
  5. According to this parable in Exodus Rabbah, what is the purpose in building of the Tabernacle? How does it depict the relationship between God and the Jewish people? Do you think it depicts God as needy? What does the parable suggest the relationship between the Jewish people and the Torah should be?

Topic 2: The Ark as an Ideal and a Symbol

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. Overlay it with pure gold - overlay it inside and out and make it a gold molding round about… and deposit in the Ark the Tablets of the Pact which I give you. (Exodus 25:10)

Derash: Study

  • "And they shall make an Ark:" Why is it that in reference to all the other vessels (in the tabernacle) we read, "And you shall make," (in the singular) but in reference to the Ark it says, "And they shall make?" Said R. Judah b. R. Shalom: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: "Let all come and occupy themselves with the Ark in order that they may all merit the Torah." (Exodus Rabbah 34:2)
  • The sages were keenly sensitive to the language of the Torah. They noticed that with regard to all the other objects that were made in conjunction with the building of the Tabernacle the command is expressed in singular language but with regard to the Ark, the Torah says, "They shall make" in the plural. They wondered why the difference in the language. (Rabbi Ya'akov Ben Asher)
  • The dimensions of the ark which Israel was commanded to build are listed in half cubits (2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5 cubits). This is a reminder that in trying to achieve (an understanding of) Torah we are only half way there. We must make an even greater effort without stopping to reach a full understanding of Torah. With regard to the altar, on the other hand, the dimensions are whole numbers (5 by 5 by 3 cubits) as a way of reminding us that when we approach the altar with repentance in our heartswe must do so with a whole heart (we should never be "half-hearted"). (Parparaot Latorah by Rabbi Menachem Becker)
  • Said Rava: Any student, whose outer manifestation is not as pure as his inner manifestation, is not truly a disciple of Torah. This is similar to the Ark that is made of acacia wood that is covered with gold on the outside and on the inside. (The true sign of a Torah scholar is not cleverness but purity of character that is manifest both within and to the outside world.) (Talmud Yoma 72b)

Questions for Discussion

  1. The Rabbis seem to go to great trouble to find meaning in small insignificant details about the Ark. What details do they single out? Why do you think they choose to emphasize these aspects of the Ark?
  2. Why was it important to emphasize that all of the people of Israel participated in the construction of the Ark unlike the other furnishings in the tabernacle? What can we do today in order to feel a sense of ownership and participation in the enrichment of Jewish life?
  3. What aspect of Jewish spirituality do the Ark and the Altar each symbolize in the comment by Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher? Why are their dimensions different from one another? How is a person's participation in Torah study different from their quest for a closer connection to God through Teshuvah?
  4. What personal and intellectual qualities are necessary for a person to be an ideal disciple of Torah? How can we strive to acquire these qualities in our own personal lives?
  5. If you were designing a new Ark for your congregation, how might you use these sources to design the ark? What should the ark say to us about the goals and aspirations that are essential to Jewish life?


  • Rabbi Ya'akov Ben Asher (1270-1340) - A German-born scholar who lived in Spain and is the author of an influential code of Jewish law called the Arba'ah Turim.
  • Yoma - the Tractate of the Talmud that deals with the laws of Yom Kippur. It deals with this fast as it was observed in the ancient Temple as well as the laws of fasting.
  • Exodus Rabbah - A sixth century collection of homiletical Midrashim and narrative material on the Book of Exodus.

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