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Torah Attitude: Parashas Terumah: From Sinai to Synagogues
What would have been the purpose of bringing the Jewish people to Mount Sinai if there would have been no giving of the Torah? The awesome experience that revealed G'd as the total power of the universe would have been sufficient reason to bring the Jewish people to Mount Sinai. Prior to the Revelation, G'd instructed Moses to warn the Jewish people not to ascend the mountain. The Divine presence that originally appeared at Mount Sinai continued to dwell with the Jewish people. The majority of people who visit the Western Wall, the remnant of the outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount, experience a special sense of spirituality. Every synagogue that is built according to the laws of the Torah is a direct continuation of the Divine presence at the time of the giving of the Torah. We are obligated to treat our synagogues with utmost respect. Whenever we gather in a place to pray and study the Torah, G'd will let His Divine presence dwell there. Before G'd will give someone a major opportunity He will first give a similar minor situation to check and see how the potential recipient is fulfilling his existing obligations.
In the Haggadah for the night of Pesach, shortly before the festive meal is served, there is a custom to sing the paragraph known as "Dayeinu". The literal translation of the word "Dayeinu" is "it would have been sufficient for us." In this paragraph we enumerate the acts of goodness G'd bestowed upon us from the time of the exodus from Egypt and we express that each of these acts would have been sufficient reason to thank G'd for His kindness. In this context we say "had He brought us before Mount Sinai, but had not given us the Torah, Dayeinu [it would have been sufficient]." There is an apparent difficulty with this verse. What would have been the purpose of bringing the Jewish people to Mount Sinai if there would have been no giving of the Torah?
The commentaries explain that the revelation at Mount Sinai was much more than just the time when G'd gave the Jewish people the Torah and its commandments. It was literally a revelation where G'd revealed Himself to His chosen people, elevating every person present to a state of prophecy. Everyone experienced this revelation according to their own level and ability. As Rashi (Devarim 4:35) quotes from our sages, G'd opened up the upper and lower worlds and showed the Jewish people that He is the sovereign ruler over everything. Even if G'd had not given us the Torah, this awesome experience, that revealed G'd as the total power of the universe, would have been sufficient reason to bring the Jewish people to Mount Sinai.
Not ascend the mountain
Prior to the Revelation, G'd instructed Moses to warn the Jewish people not to ascend the mountain. As it says (Shemos 19:12), "And you shall set boundaries for the people roundabout [the mountain] saying 'beware of ascending the mountain and to touch its edge'". However, after the Revelation there were no restrictions and they were permitted to ascend Mount Sinai as any other mountain. As it says in the next verse (ibid 13), "when the shofar is blown they may ascend the mountain." This seems strange. If we look at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, it has maintained its holiness for all generations after the destruction of the Temple and even today we cannot step upon its holy soil. We would expect that Mount Sinai also would be a holy site even after the Revelation had finished.
The truth is that there is a continuation of the holiness from the Revelation at Mount Sinai right up till today; however, it is not connected to the actual site of the Revelation. As the Ramban explains at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the purpose of the Tabernacle was to erect an edifice where the Divine presence would continue to dwell. At the Revelation of Mount Sinai it says (Shemos 24:16) "And the Honour of G'd dwelled upon Mount Sinai." We find a very similar expression in regards to the Tabernacle, as it says (ibid 40:34): "And the Honour of G'd filled the Tabernacle." This indicates, says the Ramban, that the Divine presence that originally appeared at Mount Sinai continued to dwell with the Jewish people in the Tabernacle. The Divine presence dwelled upon Mount Sinai till the Tabernacle was erected. At that point It transferred to the Tabernacle. Only then was the shofar blown indicating that now the Jewish people was permitted to ascend the mountain (see Rashi's commentary on the Talmud, Beitzah 5b).
Special sense of spirituality
As the Jewish people entered the land of Israel they established the Tabernacle in Shiloh. After Shiloh was destroyed the Holy Ark was established in various places throughout the land of Israel. Wherever the Ark was situated the Divine presence hovered over it. Eventually, King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem where the Divine presence has been ever since. Even nowadays the majority of people who visit the Western Wall, the remnant of the outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount, experience a special sense of spirituality. Some have an urge to put on tefillin. Others pour out their hearts in prayer. And many have reconnected with their Jewish heritage as they stood at this holy place. Little do they know that this is due to the Divine presence hovering there. As King Solomon says (Shir HaShirim 2:9) "Behold, He is standing behind our wall." The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni ibid) explains that this refers to the Western Wall. As the Midrash says, "For the Divine presence has never departed from the Western Wall."
Even after the destruction of the Temple when the Jewish people were exiled among the nations of the world, this Divine presence also came along into exile. The Prophet Ezekiel (11:16) says, "So says HASHEM, G'd. I have distanced them to the nations and I have spread them out in the countries. But I will be to them a miniature sanctuary in the countries that they came to." The Talmud (Megillah 29a) explains that this refers to the houses of prayer and study in the Diaspora. Every synagogue that is built according to the laws of the Torah is a direct continuation of the Divine presence at the time of the giving of the Torah.
No wonder that we are obligated to treat our synagogues with utmost respect as outlined in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim (Chapter 151). The Shulchan Aruch rules that one may not enter a synagogue merely to seek shelter from heat or rain. One may not engage in idle chatter in a synagogue, even at a time when prayers are not being said. How much more is one obligated to refrain from talking during prayer services, especially throughout the repetition of the Shemona Esrei. In this regard, the Shulchan Aruch is very harsh and says (ibid 124:7) "If someone talks during the repetition of Shemona Esrei, he is a sinner and his sin is more severe than he can bear. If anyone does talk, the other congregants are obligated to chastise him." The Chofetz Chaim quotes in Mishnah Berurah (ibid 27) from one of the early Halchachic authorities, the Kol Bo, who wrote, "Woe onto the people who talk during prayer, for we have seen many synagogues that were destroyed because of this sin." He further quotes that every synagogue should appoint respectable people to oversee this matter. We find a hint of this in the Torah itself. In the end of Parashas Behar it says, "You shall observe My Sabbaths, and you shall respect My Sanctuary, I am G'd." On this the Sforno comments that just like we are obligated to observe the Shabbat, even in exile, so too must we respect our synagogues and study halls, throughout our exile.
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Shemos 25:8-9), it says "And you shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell In their midst … And so you shall do." Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 16b) that this last instruction "And so you shall do" seems redundant. The Talmud explains that this is an instruction for future generations. One way to understand the words of our sages could be that this is referring to the erection of our miniature sanctuaries throughout the generations. G'd's instructs us to build synagogues and study halls and He promises that whenever we gather in a place to pray and study the Torah, He will let His Divine presence dwell there.
In last week's Torah Attitude we discussed that at the time of the Revelation at Mount Sinai G'd observed all the nations of the world to see who was keeping the seven Noachide commandments. Based on this G'd decided who would be worthy to receive the 613 commandments contained in the Torah. The nations of the world who did not fulfill the obligations of the Noachide commandments could not be trusted with the Torah. Only the Jewish people who kept these commandments were ready and worthy to receive the Torah. This teaches us that before G'd will give someone a major opportunity He will first give a similar minor situation to check and see how the potential recipient is fulfilling his existing obligations. For example, G'd may bless an individual with a sum of money, and watch how this person deals with the entrusted funds. If G'd sees that the person separates a tenth to charity and otherwise spends the money wisely, G'd may bestow this person with wealth and trust him to be one of G'd's "agents" to distribute funds to needy individuals and institutions.
Every day we pray to G'd that we should merit seeing the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem when the full glory of G'd will rest upon the Great Sanctuary. We must always keep in mind that G'd will check to see how we conduct ourselves in our miniature sanctuaries. It seems that only when we show proper respect when entering a synagogue can we truly expect to be deemed worthy to be given the opportunity to enter the Temple. If we internalize this it will be much easier for us to make sure that we do not turn our synagogues into social halls but conduct ourselves as fitting for a house of worship. In this merit may we soon speedily in our days see the fulfillment of G'd's promise to restore His glory to Zion.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network