Shabbat Terumah 5779

The instruction manual for the building of the mishkan occupies the majority of our Torah readings for the next two weeks. Although one doesn’t usual find great moral guidance in instruction manuals, the brilliance of our interpretative tradition is its ability to find meaning in even the materials and measurements.

For example, consider what this week’s portion, Terumah, tells us about the parokhet, the curtain, whose purpose was to serve as a barrier that keeps us from the inner sanctum: “Hang the curtain under the clasps, and carry the Ark of the Pact there, behind the curtain, so that the curtain shall serve you as a partition between the Holy and the Holy of Holies” (Exodus 26:33). When I see this verse, I think of the ballroom in our shul building. There’s a curtain, and at times it is closed, separating us from the space behind it. But all one has to do is draw it open, or sneak through it, to get beyond it. Is that all one needed to do in order to reach Kodesh haKodashim, the Holy of Holies?
Actually, there’s a discussion of this in early rabbinic literature. The Mishnah, in describing how the High Priest got into this holiest of spaces on the holiest day of the year (Yom Kippur), records this disagreement: “He went through the heikhal until he came to the place between the two curtains which separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies, and between which there was [a space of] one cubit. Rabbi Yose said: there was but one curtain, as is written, ‘so that the curtain shall serve you as a partition…” (M. Yoma 5:1). In citing the verse from the Torah, Rabbi Yose seems to have it right; if so, what was the rationale for the first opinion in the Mishnah (let’s call them “the sages”) that there were actually two curtains? And how can we make sense of their understanding of the High Priest’s choreography?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at these questions more carefully, and from these details, we can learn more about what it means to have access to holiness.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise