21.5. Temple of Revelation, Temple of Atonement

Weekly portion Terumah is paired with portion Tetzaveh. Both portions describe the disposition of the Temple, but each from a different perspective.

In the Terumah portion, Moses gets all the action; there is no mention of Aaron. And in Tetzaveh the situation is reversed: The protagonist is Aaron, and Moses does not appear. Thus, these two portions give us two different viewpoints on the Temple – Moses’ and Aaron’s, respectively.

In Moses’ Temple, a visitor to the Sanctuary can enter without intermediaries. Contact with holiness occurs without barriers. There are no priests there; anyone entering the Temple is deemed sufficiently pure to come in contact with holiness directly. To his left, looking south, stands the Menorah, lampstand, representing the light of wisdom, and to the right (north), is a table with its “breads of display” (symbolizing material success). Between those two is a direct passage to the Holy of Holies. Nothing blocks a person’s way forward.

In the Holy of Holies stands the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Tablets of the Law. Above the Ark of the Covenant are two cherubim, and from the space between them the Almighty’s voice can be heard. Thus, the essence of Moses’ Temple is Divine revelation based on a person’s spiritual and material achievements. He comes to the Temple to hear the voice of God, to understand the world’s essential nature and how it is constructed, and what God wants from a him. In Moses’ view, man is intrinsically pure. His goal is to approach God and receive Divine revelation.

But Aaron’s approach is different. Upon entering Aaron’s Temple, one sees priests there. Because man is inherently prone to sin, he may not proceed directly – he lacks the necessary purity and righteousness. The priests block his passage. They act as intermediaries and offer sacrifices to the Almighty on his behalf. A person arriving at Aaron’s Temple is not allowed to come in direct contact with holiness; the priests are there do that for him.

The priests are dressed to impress. Their distinctive garb is specially designed to stir the people’s imagination. In Aaron’s Temple the impact of aesthetics plays an enormous role. The priests’ clothing inspires a certain idea in the minds of the people, “a mental image of holiness” (because it is always the deceptive power of a person’s imagination that leads him to sin, we must counter that force by exciting his imagination in the opposite direction: to sanctity).

At the center of Aaron’s Temple stands the Altar of Incense. This altar, although it is an essential element of the Temple, is not described in the Terumah portion, but only in Tetzaveh (30:1-7). The Altar of Incense, located in the Temple’s main hall, blocks direct passage to the Holy of Holies. A cloud of burning incense fills the Temple site, concealing the Almighty and His revelation.

Why does a person come to Aaron’s Temple if he cannot advance directly to Revelation? He comes with a completely different purpose: to be cleansed of his sins. He cannot cleanse himself, because he is sinful by nature. The priests help him to be cleansed, thus achieving atonement on his behalf.

The priests’ ceremonial garments, described in the Tetzaveh portion (28:4-43) in great detail, must spark the emotions of those who come to the Temple, in order to improve and correct them. Indeed, a person cannot be corrected by rational arguments alone; in order to accomplish that we must evoke in him a vivid experience. The four garments worn by ordinary priests correspond to the four most serious sins that are inherent in human nature at its most primitive level, and those garments are intended to help redeem him from those: murder, crudity, violence, and sexual debauchery (we will examine these points in more detail below).

Because no person is free from these four sins, every priest wore these four garments. Four additional garments, worn only by the High Priest, helped people rid themselves of the more “sophisticated” sins that are characteristic of a more refined human character: malignant speech, judgmentalism, arrogance, and idolatry. Each priestly garment contributes in its own way to liberating a person from sin, for this is the very purpose of Aaron’s Temple, after all, the reason that it exists.

Thus, Moses and Aaron perceive human nature from two opposite vantage points.

In Aaron’s view, man is, first and foremost, sinful. The function of the Temple is to help man achieve forgiveness, so that he can avoid being punished for his sins. Accordingly, the centerpiece of the Temple service is the offering of sacrifices, whose primary purpose is to effect human purification. The most prominent day in the Temple calendar is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – the only day of the year that the High Priest is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.

Moses, however, can enter the Holy of Holies at any time, because he comes there not for atonement, but for revelation. Although atonement in the Holy of Holies takes place but once a year, on Yom Kippur, revelation is ever present there. Moses contends that the essence of the Temple is not atonement but Divine revelation. Atonement is only the requisite means by which the receipt of such revelation is facilitated and achieved.

Note too that the difference between Moses’ and Aaron’s approaches is reflected in the names of the two weekly portions. Aaron’s portion is Tetzaveh, from tzaveh, “(to) order, command.” From Aaron’s point of view, forging a connection with the Temple is compulsatory for all. Every person has sins, and unless he is cleansed from those, he cannot improve and advance.

But the name of Moses’ portion is Terumah, from “rum,” which denotes raising, or being raised. A terumah is an offering or contribution presented voluntarily. In Moses’ view, people come to the Temple to bring offerings of their own volition, and are themselves elevated in that process along with their offerings. Spiritual advancement, and the opportunity to hear God’s voice and to receive Divine revelation, are given only to those persons who themselves strive for them. Those things are given to man according to the level of what he yearns for by his own free choice.

Of course, none of us has attained the level that Moses’ could and did. Only Moses could enter directly into the Holy of Holies at any time. But in telling us of Moses’ attainments and point of view, the Torah is teaching us that sinfulness is not an intrinsic human characteristic, that man was not created ab initio as a sinner. Needless to say, a person who has sinned must seek correction. But in his primal nature, man is as Moses sees him.

Thus, the Tabernacle must unite the two views – Moses and Aaron, revelation and atonement. The two views are mutually complementary.

As previously explained in detail, one of humanity’s fundamental problems is eternal conflict between brothers. This conflict runs through the entire book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers[1].

Moses and Aaron finally manage to resolve this conflict. The resolution derives from the brothers’ realization that rather than competing for primacy, they actually complement each other. This, in fact, is why Moses and Aaron are so successful. Their relationship is not competitive but complementary. The Temples of Moses and of Aaron are likewise mutually complementary.

This idea of a “hybrid” Temple that unites the aspects of revelation and atonement is rather different from how the Temple is usually conceived. It affords us a completely new perspective on the Temple’s significance, and its role in Jewish history.

[1] The problem of fraternal conflict has been elaborated in detail at §15.4 above. See also Bible Dynamics to Genesis, Ch. 42.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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