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God is the Architect, We Are the Builders

Parshat Terumah is full of details about the construction of the Mishkan, or portable Tabernacle, which will serve as God's particular dwelling place among the Israelites. The haftarah is a description of the construction of King Solomon's great temple in Jerusalem, also God's dwelling place. Moreover, both the Torah portion and the haftorah are studies of two architectural metaphors for the ultimate creation: the world. The universe created in Genesis is not the place of God, rather God is the universe. With the Mishkan, God is the architect, Moshe is the builder and God's presence fills it. In the building of the Temple, God is neither architect nor builder. This results in staggering differences.

According to Genesis, God the Architect, created a perfect world, that is, until the arrival of Adam and Eve. Once humanity was created the perfect order of the universe was disrupted. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden and the unfolding of human history with all of its foibles and faults began. Skipping ahead thousands of years (ein mukdam u'meuchar ba'Torah, literally, there is no before and no after, in other words, no chronological order, in the Torah) to the time when the Israelites are just beginning their desert sojourning. God instructs Moshe to build (create) a Mishkan which is a vastly scaled down model of the universe that was created in Genesis. Suffice it to say that extensive rabbinic analysis demonstrates the parallels between the Mishkan and the creation story in Genesis. Unfortunately, just as Adam and Eve corrupted the Garden of Eden, the Mishkan will soon be corrupted by the creation of the golden calf. (Assuming that you agree with Rashi that God really instructed Moshe to build the Mishkan after the golden calf incident.)

In these first two structural creations God is the primary Architect. In Genesis God is also the builder. In Exodus, God is still the primary Architect but the instructions how to build the Mishkan are filtered through Moshe who then elicits the support from the people "whose heart so moves him" (Exodus 25.2). In the building of the Temple, however, King Solomon is essentially on his own. The Torah says only that "The Lord had given Solomon wisdom" (1 Kings 5:26). According to the very next verse God's absence in the building of the Temple could not be made more evident: "King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel" (1 Kings 5:27). Solomon reverted to the same cruel method of slavery that Pharaoh used against the Israelites!

I could say that the lesson we are supposed to glean from this is that the absence of God1s presence invites humans to act contemptibly. Or I could say that the message is that it is dangerous to pretend that even though we have certain god-like abilities to create things we are not God. Instead, I want to point out just how easy it is for us to gloss over cruel and unjust practices if somehow we believe the end justify the means. How odd it is that we are so willing to accept the forced servitude of all of Israel in order to build the Temple. Instead of remembering the Temple as symbol of another period of slavery in Jewish history, we venerate and glorify it! Worse, we have elevated its architect and builder into a major Jewish hero. (One can only wonder how history will treat Arial Sharon!?) No, I think the real lesson in this week's haftarah is how easy it is for us to gloss over cruel, unjust and inhumane treatment of people if we believe that the end justify the means.

A brief postscript: The fact that rabbinic tradition has generally included 25:26 - 32 is important. It would have been easy to exclude these verses and just begin with chapter 26, as the Reconstructionist prayer book suggests. I think that the rabbis were correct to want us to read how Solomon unwisely imposed forced labor upon his own people.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah