Friday, February 24, 2023

Portable: The Story Of Jewish Survival


The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels, as in Exodus 40:17–19;

from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

The phrase is memorable because it is apt: “portable homeland.” In a somewhat rambling essay entitled “Confessions,” Heinrich Heine describes how the Jews…preserved the Bible from the great conflagration of the sacred temple, and all through the middle ages carried it about with them like a portable homeland… Heine observes that the Torah became a refuge for the Jews during exile. They found comfort inside a virtual reality, an otherworldly homeland floating in a sea of words.


Portable is the story of Parshat Terumah. The Mishkan, the first sanctuary of the Jewish people, was meant to be disassembled, transported, and reassembled at each stop during their 40-year journey in the desert. After the Jews settled in the land of Israel, a permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem, which became the spiritual and national center of the Jews. But after the Temple was destroyed, the Jews faced a profound challenge: How would they be able to maintain their religious identity without the Temple? Our Parsha hints at the solution; every sanctuary, even the Temple, can be portable, just like the very first sanctuary in the desert.


The midrashic phrase “this verse demands to be read poetically” describes an unusual verse in this week’s Torah reading. We are told how the Ark of the Covenant (which will carry the Luchot, the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments), is to be constructed. Just like several other furnishings in the Mishkan, the Ark is meant to have poles that slide into the sides, to enable it to be carried from place to place. But then there is a puzzling commandment, which pertains only to the Ark: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15). This is strange. Why leave the poles in permanently? And why is this rule only for the Ark?


Several commentaries explain this strange command by focusing on how remote and holy the Ark was; it was kept in the Holy of Holies, a room visited only once a year, and only by the High Priest. Bekhor Shor suggests the following. One would remove the poles from the other furnishings to create more space for people to walk by inside the sanctuary. But for the Ark, which was in the Holy of Holies, that was unnecessary; nobody ever walked near it. Ralbag offers a different explanation. He says the poles weren’t allowed to be removed in order to prevent the possibility that someone might hold the Ark while removing the poles; that touch would be disrespectful to the Ark.


Other commentaries read this prohibition as symbolic. The Luchot inside the Ark represent the Torah; and the Meshech Chochmah explains that the poles symbolize the financial supporters of Yeshivot, who “hold up” these Torah institutions. The lesson is that the dedication of philanthropists is inseparable from the Torah studied at these Yeshivot; they are two parts of one whole.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an explanation that is reminiscent of Heine’s remark. He also focuses on the Ark as a symbol of the Torah, and says: The command that the poles must never be removed from the Ark establishes from the outset, and for all time to come, the truth that this Torah and its mission are not confined to the soil on which the sanctuary and the Temple once stood. Like the Ark, the Torah must be ever-ready, at a moment's notice, for any journey. Even in exile, the portable homeland is always with us, ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people.


This lesson became critical after the destruction of the Temple when rabbinic leadership focused on repairing the spiritual breach. Some despaired; others recognized that Judaism had to carry on. When Rabbi Joshua exclaimed that with the destruction of the Temple, there was no longer any way to find atonement for one’s sins, his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said to him: “My son, don’t be upset. There is another atonement that is just as good: acts of kindness.” (Avot deRabbi Natan 5.) The synagogue became a “miniature sanctuary,” and prayer became a replacement for sacrifice; the Hebrew names for the furnishings of the synagogue are even borrowed from the Temple: Aron, Shulchan, Parochet, Ner Tamid. And the home too became a domestic Temple. The Talmud (Berakhot 55a) remarks: “When the Temple was standing, the altar (and sacrifices) atoned for a person, but now that the Temple is destroyed, a person’s table brings atonement for them (by being a place where one invites the poor and needy).” The home and synagogue became the new centers of Jewish worship.


After the destruction, the rabbis found a way to rebuild a broken people. Replacements were found for what had been lost; Jewish life would still thrive even after exile and destruction. The locus of Judaism moved from Israel to the Diaspora, and from the Temple to the synagogue and home. Rabbinic Judaism was a brilliant reinvention, a way to enable the soul of the Torah to live on even after upheaval and displacement.


At the same time, the rabbis made certain to retain the connection to the Temple and the Land of Israel. Tisha B’Av mourns the destruction and is filled with prayers for a return to the land. The Chanukah candles commemorate the Menorah in the Temple, and the holiday itself celebrates the rededication of the Temple. On Pesach and Yom Kippur, holidays in which the Temple service once played a central role, we end by declaring “next year in Jerusalem.”


The Torah served as both a replacement for, and a reminder of, what had been lost and destroyed. Immersed in the Torah, the Jews could retain their religious identity in the Diaspora; imbued with hope of returning home, they could endure the bitterness of exile. This unique combination is the recipe for a portable homeland; and with it, Jews could survive far into the west, even while their hearts remained in the east.


Roger Kamenetz, in his book The Jew in the Lotus, describes meetings that the Dalai Lama held with American Jewish leaders after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Worried that Tibetan culture will disappear in exile, he turned to these Jewish leaders and asked: “Tell me your secret…the secret of Jewish survival.” He understood that the Jews had managed to survive two millennia of wandering; as Kamenetz puts it, “In the Dalai Lamas’s eyes, and in the eyes of many Tibetans, the Jews are survival experts.”


The answer to his question can be found in one phrase: portable homeland. Wherever Jews went, they carried the Torah with them. They lived in a virtual reality filled with learning and spirituality, hopes and dreams.


Diaspora should have been the end of the Jewish people; instead, it was their finest hour, an era characterized by a heroic display of tenacity and determination. All this was possible because of their portable homeland.

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