Parshat Terumah – פרשת תרומה

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Terumah – פרשת תרומה
February 9, 2019 – ד אדר א תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Eugeny Rubashevsky & Tatyana Tchaikovskaya in memory of Shimon Yehuda & Rochel Vilenetz.
Touching the Artifacts
The Table (שלחן), made of acacia wood and plated with gold, was housed in the Holy chamber of the Tabernacle. Every Sabbath fresh Showbread (לחם הפנים) was placed on it. The breads were removed on the following Sabbath and eaten by the officiating priests.
The Torah requires that the Showbread be on the Table at all times תמיד (Exodus 25:30). This verse was understood hyper-literally. The Table could not be emptied of Showbread even for a moment. As the old loaves were slowly removed from one end of the Table, fresh loaves were simultaneously inserted on the other endעד שמושכין את הלחם הישן כהנים מניחין עליו את החדש  (Mishnah Menahot 11:7).
The need to have Showbread perpetually on the Table would present an insurmountable difficulty were the Table in need of purification in a mikveh. Throngs of Jews, many of whom were ignorant of the laws of ritual purity, entered the Temple precincts on each of the three pilgrimage festivals. Because the Temple administrators were concerned that impure visitors may have touched Temple implements, after each holiday they would take care to immerse all the sacred vessels. While that purification by water was capable of being accomplished for nearly all the sacred vessels, it was not possible for the Table to be immersed while still containing the Showbread. Accordingly, it was necessary for the administrators to make this public announcement, loudly, during each festival: “Be careful not to touch the Table and thereby render it impureהזהרו שלא תגעו בשלחן ותטמאוהו  (Mishnah Hagigah 3:8).”
For whom was this announcement made? The Table was located inside the Temple building. Israelites (in contrast to Kohanim and Leviim) were forbidden from venturing further into the Temple grounds than the eastern edge of the courtyard. Thus, both Rashi and Tosafot assume that the warning was directed to unlearned priests who had access to the inner sanctumכהנים עמי הארץ  (Hagigah 26b).
However, the warning may indeed also have been directed to the thousands of Israelite pilgrims. Both Talmudim reference a practice during festivals in which the Temple administrators brought the Table and Showbread out of the inner chamber and displayed it for the masses in the Courtyard מוציאין אותו ומראין אותו לעולי רגלים (Yerushalmi Hagigah 79d).   And, therefore, even a simple Israelite could have had direct physical contact with the Table (Torah Temimah 35).
(It is important to note that the Temple was more than just a place of worship. It also served as a Jewish national history museum, designed to inspire faith. By the Second Temple period, however, some of the more treasured artifacts from the First Temple had been lost — together with the Ark of the Covenant, holding the Tablets of the Law (Horayot 12b).)
It is human nature to want to touch historic artifacts or unique religious symbols.  President Lincoln’s chair at Ford’s Theatre and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia have been touched by millions of visitors, despite signs indicating that such contact was forbidden.  Eventually, both were cordoned off by steel cables.
This same phenomenon is manifest is several Biblical episodes.
Before the theophany at Sinai, God instructed Moses, “You shall set boundaries for the people roundabout, saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die (Exodus 19:12).’” It is understandable that some Israelites would have wanted to ascend the mountain to hear the Voice of God from a spot closer to the Heavens. But would anyone care merely to touch the edge of the mountain נגע בקצהו? The answer is “yes.” For it is human nature to want to have direct contact with palpable items of holiness or historical significance.
The Ark of the Covenant housed the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved. Direct physical contact with the Ark was forbidden. When the Israelites moved the portable Tabernacle from one wilderness encampment to the next, the sacred vessels were carried by Kohathite Levites by means of staves. Scripture goes so far as to forbid the removal of the staves from the sides of the Ark, even when the Ark was at rest in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 25:15). This precautionary measure, mandated not by the sages but by the text of the Torah itself, is evidence of the existence of a pervasive desire for direct – albeit grossly improper and directly forbidden — contact with holiness.
A need for prophylactic measures is evident from a later Biblical tale, too. During a celebratory parade sponsored by King David, Uzzah grabbed hold of the Ark to prevent it from falling off the wagon. God’s wrath was kindled. Uzzah was immediately struck dead (II Samuel 6:7).
The desire to touch an ecclesiastic or man of God, especially one who holds an exalted religious office, is common across many cultures and religions. The Shunamite woman grabbed hold of the prophet Elisha’s leg (ותחזק ברגליו) in the hopes that that man of God could restore life to her recently perished son (II Kings 4:27). She was promptly shoved aside by Elisha’s underling, Gehazi.
להבדיל – When, in 2008, at Park East Synagogue on his historic visit to an American shul, I met Pope Benedict XVI, it was noteworthy how everyone in the crowded sanctuary angled for an opportunity to touch him. For the Jews in the room, this was like shaking hands with a head of state or A-list celebrity. For the Catholics present, of course, the sense of urgency for physical contact with Joseph Ratzinger was intense and deeply religious.
Judaism nevertheless seeks to dampen – indeed to thwart entirely — the urge to connect, in any physical way, with the Divine. In some instances, the prohibition stems from the need to treat sacred items with respect and the requirement of decorous behavior in their presence. More importantly, however, these restrictions are safeguards against paganism. For Judaism, belief in one incorporeal God is theologically incompatible with seeking to touch an embodiment of the Divine.  In Judaism, we have objects that, in a ceremonial context, we employ to perform mitzvoth; we do not have relics to rub for good luck or figurines to hug and kiss (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:6).
Preventative steps are necessary to forestall a Jew’s erroneously regarding a mere object or thing as a physical extension of the Deity – whether it is the mountain on which the theophany took place (Mt. Sinai) or the sacred wooden chest containing the written record of revelation (the Ark of the Covenant). Just as, two millennia ago, the visitors to Jerusalem heeded the warning not to touch the Table, we today must understand that sometimes, despite our curiosity, we should not extend our hand beyond the velvet rope – both literally and theologically.