Have Torah, will travel: Keeping our connection to Mount Sinai 

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Terumah (Exodus 25:1−27:19)

We have a synagogue and Jewish learning center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago called Chicago Center for Torah and Chesed. It is the closest thing to being in Israel or in Brooklyn, where you can “catch a minyan” all morning until 9 a.m., and every half hour in the evening until 11 p.m.  It is wonderful for mourners who need to say Kaddish every day and have varying schedules, as it is for travelers to Chicago who need to find a minyan at unusual hours. People are studying Torah and Talmud there all day and late into the night, so for a shul; the place is “always hopping.”  I often go there when I’m running late in the evening to catch the evening Maariv service, and often end up being the Baal Tefillah/Cantor leading the service because not everyone is comfortable doing that.

Because this place is known as the Chicago Center for Torah a connection came to mind studying this week’s Torah portion Terumah.  There is a fascinating explanation given by Nahmanides (Ramban) on why G-d, in this week’s portion, commanded the building of the Mishkan a dwelling place also known as the Tabernacle as a portable sanctuary for the Israelites and for the dwelling of Hashem’s divine presence in the world. The concept of a dwelling place for G-d presents a philosophical dilemma. After all if G-d has no shape or form, then how could it be possible that his presence be contained in a building? Does G-d need a dwelling place in the world? Isn’t G-d everywhere?Nahmanides presents another dilemma. In his opinion the commandment to build the Mishkan was given after the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Immediately after “Revelation” Moses had a problem, which was trying to convince the Jewish people to leave the mountain in order to make their way towards the Land of Israel. This was not an easy task. After all at Sinai they had experienced the ultimate spiritual experience. Sinai in their eyes was the holiest place in the world.

How does one leave such an intensely spiritual place? How would Moses convince the nation that they should leave Sinai and wander into the wilderness?

Nahmanides explains that the building of the Mishkan was the solution. If the dilemma of the people was they wanted to remain at Sinai, then the Mishkan would become a portable Mount Sinai that would accompany the nation wherever they went.

Nahmanides makes a compelling argument by comparing the texts that pertain to the Sinai story, with those that describe the building of the Mishkan. One example is that the focal point of the Mishkan was the Ark that held the Tablets of the 10 Commandments that were given at Sinai. In this way the Ark would literally be a symbol of Mount Sinai.

But beyond the example of the Ark, the verses are also very similar. Regarding the Mishkan we are told, “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting andG-d’s glory filled the Mishkan (Exodus 40:34). About Sinai it is written, “And Moses ascended the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain.  And G-d’s glory filled Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:15-16). Thesesimilarities, claims Nahmanides, are to show us that Mount Sinai and the Mishkan were connected one to another. One was stationary and the other portable. When the nation had to leave the stationary mountain they took along with them the portable replacement so that the intense experience that they felt at Sinai would not dissipate when they left, but be a continuing spiritual experience.

What this means practically for us today, is that we too must be in a constant pursuit to recreate the experience of our ancestors at Sinai. Judaism is not a religion of the past but one that uses the past to ignite and give meaning to the present. Every day we are challenged to not leave our Judaism behind, but to figure out how to take it with us. Just like the Jewish nation had to take the Sinai experience with them when they left the mountain, so too we must take the valuable teachings of the Torah with us and learn how to apply them to our lives daily. We must constantly remind ourselves that wherever we go and whatever we do we can infuse our actions with holiness. The Torah can accompany us wherever we go.

This thought brings me back to The Chicago Center of Torah and Chesed Synagogue. People from all over the world come to Chicago and pray there because they know they can always find a minyan to join in. It is a great example of how Judaism and our connection and need to be in a holy environment can be fulfilled outside of our own local synagogue that we may attend on Shabbat and Holidays.

When out of town, on weekdays, I always try to find a Minyan in the town I’m visiting to attend. In fact I can’t help but be reminded of the verses we read when the Torah scrolls are taken out and returned to the Ark at services. Quoting from the Torah regarding the Ark we say the following, “And it was when the Ark travelled that Moses said ‘Arise oh G-d and may all your enemies be dispersed from before you’. And when the Ark would come to rest he would say ‘Return oh Lord to the myriads of thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:35-36).

I know that those words take on a special meaning when people make it a point to start the work day in shul especially on Mondays and Thursdays when Torah is taken out during Shacharit morning services all over the world.  Whether at home or when we visit a new community, and a new synagogue, it is the same prayers, and the same Torah that we read from, no matter where we are. It is my hope that we too will learn from to find new meaning in the timely words of the Torah;  that the Torah will be with us wherever we go, and that we will be with the Torah. This should be true for all the Jewish people, no matter where we go to synagogue and no matter how we pray.

Rabbi Doug Zelden is the rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago, chaplain at Home Bound Hospice, and host of the weekly TV show “Taped With… Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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