ParashatTerumah details the construction of some of our earliest sacred objects: the Ark of the Covenant (yes, the same one Indiana Jones found), the Tabernacle, and the sacred altar. Many of these objects take on central roles throughout the rest of the Torah and into Jewish history. The Ark of the Covenant led the Israelites on their march through the wilderness and in early battles for the Land of Israel. The Tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that eventually led to the construction of the Temple, the permanent sanctuary we still turn towards when we pray.
As important as each of these objects are, they are in certain ways surprising. We speak of God as being without body or substance, so why do we have physical representations of holiness at all? Aren’t we able to pray in any place with just ourselves and our thoughts?
We have these physical objects because they can frequently be tools for us. Sometimes it is difficult to connect with ideas we cannot touch or see. It can be difficult to focus, to properly direct out intention during moments of prayer and reflection. But entering into a physical space we consider holy, immediately has an impact. Grasping a physical object – putting on a kipah, wearing tallit and tefillin, carrying a Torah – can give us the tangible feeling of something intangible, God’s presence. The beauty of our tradition is that it has room for both. The times when we feel God is with us with nothing around, and also the times when we need the physical reminders. As the next few parshiot detail these physical manifestations, we are grateful for their impact on our tradition as well as the modern representations we literally hold on to today.