Terumah 2021: The Four Cubits

The Tabernacle and the Temple were physical places for the Israelites to connect with and commune with God - where do we find this connection in our lives?

The portable Tabernacle used by the Israelites to commune with God  is a mysterious structure. This week’s Torah portion goes into great detail as to its construction but what is the point? What is the architecture referencing? The most interesting theory is that it represents in miniature the ordered universe. Many biblical scholars have noted the parallels between the creation story in Genesis and the building of the Tabernacle.

Prior to next week’s sin of the Golden Calf the Tabernacle is built in 7 steps, just like the universe, the 7th step being the commandment for Shabbat. In this way the Tabernacle miniaturizes God’s cosmos Manufacturing a human place that reflects God’s own creation. 

As our story goes on this portable Tabernacle is replaced by the Temple which is really only an elaborated replica of the Tabernacle itself fixed in one place. Each step along the way, from the entire cosmos to the Tabernacle to the Temple, the dwelling place of God reflects human modes of habitation. By this I mean rather than God dwelling throughout the whole world as the Prophet Isaiah tells us God negotiates terms with the Israelites to provide the capacity to build a specific place in which God will very distinctly dwell amongst them. 

The point of this place is debated by our tradition. Two prominent medieval Sephardic rabbis disagreed about the point of the Tabernacle. As is quite clear from the Torah the main activity that took place in the Tabernacle was animal sacrifice. Moses ben Maimon and Moses ben Nachman two rabbis that lived in the 12th and 13th c. had very different understandings of what sacrifice was. 

Moses ben Maimon believed it to be a concession from God. The Israelites lived amongst other peoples all of whom worshipped through sacrifice they knew no other way of connecting to the Divine. So God used the ritual language of their time and place to communicate with them. The sacrifices themselves weren’t necessary; they were merely the symbolic conduit between God and the Israelites which allowed the Israelites to commune with the Divine.

Moshe ben Nachman went the opposite direction saying that sacrifices mended the world in a mystical way and that this mending was necessary to create a space on earth for God to dwell amongst us. Either way you put it the Tabernacle is designed to allow humans to interact with God. And this interaction was mediated via sacrifice on an altar.

But what happens after the manmade meeting place is destroyed? We no longer have a Temple or a Tabernacle. Are we now completely cut off from interacting with God? The rabbis’ entire project after the destruction of the Temple was reconstituting what it meant to connect with and interact with God.

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ami, a 4th century Rabbi in ancient Palestine, said in the name of his teacher Ulla: Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, is revealed in only one place: the four cubits of halakha.

Halakhah is a Hebrew word most directly translated as “The Way.”  It is often translated as “Jewish law” but it is more than that. It is the development process of Jewish practice throughout the ages and the ways in which that change is argued, debated, and enacted. Now that we’ve got Halakhah down, let’s take on what four cubits means.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda says: A person’s body measures three cubits, and an additional cubit is needed in order to pick up an object from under his feet and place it under his head, meaning, to give him room to maneuver.

This is to say, 4 cubits is the space a human occupies, including the space around the body necessary to act in the world. One way of understanding these statements is that the Talmud is telling us that God interacts with the world through people enacting Halakhah- the Jewish way. There is an additional text, though, that might shed even more light.

The Prophet Ezekiel describes in great detail the measurements of the Temple. In it, he says, “the height of the altar hearth shall be four cubits, with four horns projecting upward from the hearth: four cubits.”

Which is to say, the altar itself is four cubits just as the human body is.

In this, we see a drastic and beautiful rabbinic parallel: We, each of us, are an altar. Just as the altar was the medium at the Tabernacle and the Temple for communing with God the halakhah we enact, the Way we behave Jewishly, is our mode of communion with God.

An example: This week, we read a special section of Torah for what is called “Shabbat Zachor.” The Shabbat of Remembering In it, we are reminded to remember to never forget that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites unprovoked from the rear as they were fleeing the Egyptians and weakened from a lack of water.

Just before the section of Torah reminding us of Amalek God commands us to never have falsely balanced weights. It may seem that these two things are not connected, but not so.  Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th century Eastern European commentator tells us that false weights and measures in particular are related to idolatry, because the practice assumes that the practitioner will not be provided what they need through honest means. This, he wrote, is actually a lack of faith as it is bad behavior rooted in doubt of God’s abundance.

He sees in this truth a connection to the reminder against Amalek. The Israelites, just before Amalek attacked, expressed doubt that God would provide for them in the wilderness.

And so the reminder of Amalek is also a reminder to not allow doubt to lead your behaviors astray. This is an excellent example of what it means to be an altar to be the 4 cubits of halachah that brings God into the world. By responding to the world with a mindfulness, of our purpose here and the way in which our experiences are charged with the Sacred if we bring the correct perspective we are able to “blot out” Amalek, the representation of a perspective based in scarcity.

This perspective based in scarcity can lead us to step off of “The Way,” and that the Jewish approach is to maintain a perspective based on abundance. Next week we celebrate Purim another commemoration of Jewish resilience in the face of Amalek. May we, each of us, remember that we are an altar in the world providing the four cubits for God to dwell amongst us.

May this give us a perspective of abundance, even in the face of fear, and lead us to remember to never forget the destructive power of Amalek- of a life based  in fear of scarcity. May our offerings of abundance bring us to be the Sanctuary needed for the Divine presence in the world. Shabbat shalom.