Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Terumah (Psalms)

“I ask but one thing of the Lord: to see the pleasantness of the Lord, and to visit His sanctuary”

With Parshat Terumah, the Torah takes a sharp turn: leaving the narrative of the events that befall the people of Israel in Egypt and after leaving it, the next five portions (Exod 25-40) are primarily occupied with a detailed description of the instructions for the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert, forerunner of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Many people find these chapters difficult to read or relate to: they are filled with technical details, lists of materials and measurements of the various artifacts, the curtains and coverings and wooden partitions that encompassed it and surrounded it, the priestly garments, and later on, in the first half of Leviticus, the details of the various kinds of sacrifices. But when we turn to the Psalms, we encounter a very different picture, in which the experience of being at the Temple is filled with spiritual meaning. There are perhaps several dozen psalms in which the Temple, “the house of the Lord,” is mentioned at greater or lesser length. In these, the Temple serves as a focus for the psalmist’s deepest spiritual yearnings, of his wish for closeness and intimacy with God, for a sense of Presence, of protection, of taking shelter in the wings of the Shekhinah.

There are many psalms that convey the spiritual feelings evoked by the Temple. In some it is the central theme, while in others it is mentioned in passing. Some psalms articulate a yearning for God that is almost mystical. Interestingly, these almost always refer to presence in the house of God as a kind of high point, as the very embodiment of the mystical desire for devekut, cleaving to God (thus, for example, in Pss 27, 42, 63, 65, to name but a few). Two whole groups of psalms relate to the Temple and its service in their entirety: the psalms of the Hallel (113-118), which were chanted during the festive paschal meal held by family groups in Jerusalem, and which were also almost certainly used during the during the festival of Sukkot, perhaps in the processions around the altar (within the Hallel, Pss 116 and 118 specifically evoke the Temple atmosphere); and the fifteen psalms beginning with the title Shir ha-Ma’alot (“a pilgrim song” or “a song of ascent”), which seem to have been written for the pilgrims ascending to Zion for the three great festivals each year. Many of these express feelings of closeness, trust, and confidence in God; among them 122, 126, 132 and 134 particularly relate to the Temple. We shall return to some of these in greater detail, whether during the coming weeks or later in the year.

One could say that the psalmist’s world is composed of two diametrically opposed realms: that of the “outside” world, in which he is subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and that of the Temple, in which all is peace and harmony. In psalm after psalm, at least those of the petitional type, the author portrays himself as surrounded by enemies who mock him, who plot against him and lay traps and try physically to destroy him, while he turns to God in his distress, and finds comfort in His saving power. In many such psalms, this experience of God’s presence is related to the Temple, where he can feel His face, be among “the celebrating throng,” bring an offering in gratitude for God’s kind acts, or simply to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

One such psalm is Psalm 26, that is suggested for Parshat Terumah. This psalm is divided into three parts: Verses 1-5 portray the basic situation of the speaker vis-a-vis his enemies: “Vindicate me, O God, for I have walked in innocence.” He asks God to test him, so as to prove his innocence, using the words tzarfah kilyotay velibi—“scourge my innards and my heart”—a strong word, using the image of smelting, of the purification accomplished through a refiner’s fire. He likewise declares that he has not associated with lying men or with the community of evil doers. Verses 6-8 refer to the Temple: “I will wash my hands in innocence, and circle God’s altar.” He will tell the people assembled there of the miracles God has done for him, and concludes with a statement of simple love for God’s habitation and the “place of His glory.” Verses 9-11 are a denouement, in which the author again asks that he not be identified with evil men, sinners, or men of violence, but reiterates—repeating the theme of the initial verse—that he walks in innocence, and that his feet stand on a (morally) straight place. The conclusion: he will bless God with the choruses of those assembled there.


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