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Moral Laws vs. Ritual Laws: Which “Matter More?” (Terumah)

Along with religious texts, legal codes, and various forms of pottery, many civilizations of the ancient world have left behind impressive architectural monuments. The Mesopotamians, for example, built ziggurats, while the Egyptians built pyramids and sphinxes, and the Mayans built astronomical observatories, referred to by archaeologists as E-Groups. The Chinese, of course, built the Great Wall of China, and the Greeks built the Temple of Artemis, the statue of Zeus and the Colossus of Rhodes. The Romans, for their part, built bathhouses, gymnasiums, the Pantheon and the Coliseum. Everywhere in the ancient world, people were building.

Of course, the ancient Israelites also did their fair share of building. In the days of Solomon, and then again under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites built the first and second Temples (בתי המקדש) in Jerusalem. Less known is that another structure, the Tabernacle (המשכן) actually preceded these two Temples, functioning as the nation’s religious center for nearly four hundred years in the Israelite cities of Gilgal, Shiloh and Gibeon. In fact, the instructions to build this portable sanctuary form the subject of this week’s Torah portion, whose opening verses read:

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper…” (Exodus 25:1-3).

An artistic rendition of the Tabernacle

An artistic rendition of the Tabernacle

These introductory instructions are fascinating. In the ancient world, the funds for national building initiatives – including, in many instances, for shrines and for temples – were usually raised by government-imposed taxes. Moreover, rulers often levied a labor tax on top of the monetary one, conscripting citizens into construction forces for public projects. These taxes were especially easy to justify in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where kings were widely considered divine, or in Mayan society, where kings doubled-up as priests. But even the First Temple in Jerusalem was built through such taxes. In fact, it was these taxes, the Bible recounts, which ultimately led to the split of the monarchy: the mutiny began with the murder of a tax-collector and ended when Jeroboam – a foreman gone rogue – assumed rulership over the ten northern tribes of Israel.

Yet when we look to the first sanctuary in Israelite history – the Tabernacle – we find a different picture altogether. The funds for this structure (and, incidentally, for the Second Temple, which was built, as mentioned, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah) were not raised through mandatory taxes. In God’s own words, the building costs for His sanctuary were to be covered only by the person “whose heart inspires him to generosity” – that is, the materials required for its construction were to be contributed voluntarily. Actually, the name of this week’s Torah portion denotes just that: תרומה, in Hebrew, means “donation” – as in, something you could give, not something you must.

What’s interesting is that nowhere else in the Torah do we find such a large body of laws introduced as being somehow “voluntary” – not the dietary laws, not the holiday laws, and not the agricultural laws. In fact, the title of last week’s Torah portion, which dealt primarily with civic laws, left no room for error on this point: משפטים, in Hebrew, means “laws” – not “suggestions.” When it comes to “thou shalt not murder,” “thou shalt not injure,” or “thou shalt not oppress the stranger,” our Torah doesn’t give options. Yet the laws of the sanctuary, introduced immediately after the civic laws, open with choice. This contrast is striking and it is without a doubt deliberate. What’s the Torah trying to communicate?

It seems that the Torah is hinting at the primacy of societal obligations over ritual ones. God sanctions the building of a sanctuary in His honor, but He cautions us from the very outset against turning that sanctuary and all that it represents into a vehicle of strife, embezzlement, violence or bloodshed. In our zeal to perform the laws which govern our relationship with God (אדם למקום בין), we must never neglect the laws which govern our relationships with our fellow man and woman (בין אדם לחברו). That’s the message here. To build a Tabernacle, God tells us, would be a תרומה – it would be “generous;” it would be, perhaps, ideal. But to treat each other properly is משפט – it is just; it is inviolable; it is simply the “law.”

Nowhere do we find this idea expressed more forcefully, in fact, than in the laws which regulate the building of the Tabernacle’s most central structure: the sacrificial altar. Let’s take a look at some examples of such laws:

  • And when you make for Me an altar of stones, you shall not build them of hewn stones, lest you wield your sword upon it and desecrate it (Exodus 20:22).

Excavated ruins of what archaeologist Adam Zartel identifies as the “altar of Joshua.” The structure was discovered in Israel on Mount Ebal and is the oldest surviving Israelite altar which has been discovered to date.

The Tabernacle is a place of peace, the Torah declares, and even the slightest association with the “sword” – that is, with war or weaponry – is antithetical to its identity. So important is this distinction that later in Tanakh, God actually rejects King David’s request to build a Temple for Him, on the basis that “thou hast made great wars… and thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in My sight” (I Chronicles 22:8). Never mind that David was the greatest monarch the Jewish people ever knew: the fact that he had taken human life, even under just circumstances, was enough to bar his involvement with God’s sacred dwelling.

  • And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it (Exodus 20:23).

The institution of sacred prostitution – sexual intercourse performed during ceremonies of religious worship – was a ubiquitous one in the ancient world. But the Torah categorically rejects this degrading practice of public intimacy: in its view, nobody’s “nakedness” should be “exposed” on religious pretenses, neither by choice nor by law. Later in the Torah, God explicitly forbids these foreign customs: “There shall not be a sacred prostitute of the daughters of Israel, nor shall there be a sacred male prostitute of the sons of Israel” (Deuteronomy 23:18). Love is sacrosanct – it is not a cultic ritual.

  • But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning, [even] from My altar you shall take him to die (Exodus 21:14).

In the ancient world, religious centers often offered legal protection, or asylum, to convicted criminals – if you were camped out in the temple, you were beyond the reach of the law. Until today, we use the term sanctuary to denote a lawbreaker’s immunity from punishment. That’s because the concept originates in the sanctuaries of old. But in the Torah, there’s no such thing as a legal “no-man’s land:” the sanctity of the temple does not override the sanctity of human life. Later in Tanakh, Joab, David’s general – who is slated for execution because he has murdered Abner, Absalom and Amasa – tries to escape justice by “fleeing to the Tent of God” and “grabbing onto the horns of the Altar” (I Kings 2:28). Needless to say, he’s removed from his post and executed on the spot: one cannot excuse one’s crimes by hiding behind the cover of religion.

Needless to say, there are other laws, besides the three we just looked at, which regulate the building of the sacrificial altar — but we’ll suffice with these for now. In the meantime, one final comment is in order:

It’s only in this week’s Torah portion that the concept of a sacrificial altar is formally introduced to the Israelites, and it’s only in this week’s Torah portion than the instructions to build it are officially delivered. Yet the three laws we just looked at – “no weapons,” “no nakedness,” “no harboring criminals” – all appear in the Torah portions of last week and of two weeks ago. In other words, these laws come to regulate our use of the sacrificial altar even before we’ve even been commanded to construct that altar in the first place! That’s remarkable, when we think about it. “Whatever the Tabernacle will be,” the Torah seems to be saying, “here’s what it definitely won’t be: a pretext or a justification to treat human life with anything but the utmost respect.”

In the final analysis, of course, the laws of the sanctuary are just as mandatory as any other set of laws in the Torah (it’s quite telling, in this regard, that next week’s Torah portion, which also focuses on the laws of the Tabernacle, happens to be called תצוה: “You shall command.”) Still, in terms of priorities, there can be no question that Judaism places the “moral” over the “ritual.” Our tradition is full of teachings to this effect.

From Isaiah: Says God: Why do I need your numerous sacrifices…? Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow (Isaiah 1:11-17).

From Jeremiah: Do not trust the false statements that say, ‘The sanctuary of God, the sanctuary of God, the sanctuary of God…! Only if you truly improve your ways and your deeds; if you truly do justice between man and his fellow; do not oppress stranger, orphan and widow;  and do not shed innocent blood in this place; and do not go after the gods of others, to your own harm – then will I allow you to dwell in this place (Jeremiah 7:3-7).

From Amos: [Says God]: For even if you offer up to Me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not be appeased… Rather, let justice be revealed like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:22-24).

From Micah: Will God be appeased by thousands of rams or with tens of thousands of streams of oil [as offerings]…? What does God require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:7-8).

In short: To be a Jew is to love and to respect God. But – just as importantly – to be a Jew is to love and to respect God’s creatures. As our sages succinctly summarized: Only one who is pleasing to his fellow men is pleasing to Hashem (Avot 3:10).

Shabbat shalom!


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