The View From the Ziggurat - Parashat T'rumah

The View From the Ziggurat

        Imagine that we’re in a Temple. 

        Sorry, that wasn’t clear. We’re not in that Temple. Take your mind away from Jerusalem and picture, instead, a temple in ancient Mesopotamia. In this part of the world, a temple might be found perched atop a ziggurat - or, in Akkadian, ziqquratum, meaning “to build high”. You can guess from the name that it’s a high place. To get into the temple structure, we need to ascend an incredible staircase. The temple is made of layers and sections, and there are places we mere peasants cannot go. While not all ancient holy spaces were completely identical in all time periods, common features would appear in temple design among Israel's neighbours: courtyards outside, likely for the public; basins of water; altars for animal sacrifice; a structure of multiple layers, and - most importantly of all - a holy chamber that housed the god. You and I cannot enter that chamber, but perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the great statue of the god, raised up high in his private sanctuary, looming over us.

        Does this all sound a little familiar? 

        It should. We just read something very similar. 

        I love sacred spaces, partly because I think they can be read like a theology textbook. The colours, the art, the beams, the ceiling: all religious buildings are emotive. These spaces are built for spiritual experiences, and they are attempting to promote certain kinds of spiritual experiences. Why is a religious building tall and imposing? Because it invokes a sense that God is transcendent. Or why is it built so that you see faces wherever you look? Because the setting of the chairs is attempting to remind you that God exists primarily in the community itself. Why are the Ten Sayings (Ten Commandments) above us in this building? What does it mean to lift our eyes and look upwards at the law? You can look around this building and see, from the architecture to the artwork, deliberate theological choices. 

        The temples of the Ancient Near East had much in common with the Temple structure of Jerusalem, and the temporary temple of the wilderness we read about today. The Temple would be built on a mountain, Mount Moriah, and therefore going to the Temple included an ascension. And other temples would include a secret, shrouded, sacred space, not open to the public, where the god would reside. But there was one significant difference between our historical temple and the temple structures it was clearly culturally in relationship with. And that boils down to this question: what was in that holy space? 

        Atop the Ziggurat or Mt Moriah, the language will be that god is in that space. In the case of our neighbours, it will be exemplified by the idol, the physical presence of the god on earth. 

        The tabernacle and the First Temple did have something in the Holy of Holies, the space where only the High Priest could enter and only once a year, the dwelling-place of God. But the “thing” is not what we, in the Ancient Near East, would be expecting. The “thing” in God’s holy house is a box. “The Ark”, as we call it; the Ark of the Covenant, or the Ark of Testimony. It’s beautiful and ornate, and it holds within it the tablets of the Ten Sayings. It might be obvious that we would not place an idol in the Holy of Holies - our tradition has always been staunchly opposed to idolatry - but we nonetheless maintained the concept of the space itself, and we placed within it an object of Eidut, testimony, or B’rit, covenant. The thing in the Ark was never going to be God. Instead, it represents our relationship with God. 

        And then, moving forward in the story of our history, we reach the Second Temple. We come back from the Babylonian Exile and rebuild, but this time, there’s no Ark. It has been lost to us. But instead of deciding that there can be no Temple without the items that are supposed to exist in the holiest of holy spaces, we decide to rebuild around it. We have a Holy of Holies which is empty. The Nothing is now the Thing. This is, I think, a really important aspect of what it means to believe in the Divine: there can never be anything that represents God, because that road leads to idolatry, so instead, Nothing itself comes to represent God. 

        I know that’s a bit of a sticky point, so I’m going to turn to our friends from another religion to explain this. The Dàodéjīng, the classic text of Daoism, describes a similar concept this way:

        Mix clay to make a vessel; but the emptiness is what makes the vessel useful. 

        That is to say, the point of any vessel is to hold emptiness. The clay is not what makes it a bowl; the empty space is. That is the function of the Holy of Holies. The furnishing is only there to hold to emptiness. The Nothing inside is what is meaningful. 

        I think this is one of the most important ideas of Jewish religious thought. The background context is the assumption that a god has to have a home. It is a Thing that needs to be housed somewhere. The surroundings of that house of the god in the Ziggurat are there to increase the mystery; the fact that we cannot enter the holiest space of the idol means that we don’t know what happens in there. Every element of the ziggurat, from the upward-motion of entering to the sights and the smells, makes us feel small as we get closer and closer to the god. But not too close, because we are unworthy.

        The Temple of our history plays with this context with remarkable creativity. 

        The building itself is similar. But instead of telling people they cannot know the ins and outs of the structure, our tradition wrote a blueprint. That is what we read in the Torah today. Parashat T’rumah is the lifting of a veil. Yes, there must have been a sense of awe at this incredible building, but don’t make the mistake of thinking the awe is about the building. Just in case you might be inclined to think the mystery of the building is what is important, here, have all the details. Have the length of every beam and the colour of every drape at your fingertips. Because the building is just the clay of the vessel. What is important is what’s inside. 

        And lest you think that what’s inside is some tangible concept of divinity, no, we’ll tell you what that is too: it is a symbol to witness our relationship with the intangible. And then, later, the symbol itself disappears. Because the important thing is the Idea. The important thing, the aspect that should inspire awe, is what is Beyond, what is beyond the world of clay and wood and gold, and into the world of Love and Soul and Life. 

        God is not what’s in there. You actually cannot get closer to and further away from God, because God is not a Thing. 

        Here’s the Jewish version, or perhaps inversion, of the Dàodéjīng’s teaching about bowls: two letters in a Torah scroll may not be touching, according to the Talmud (Menachot 29a), because the white space of the parchment is just as important as the black ink of the letters. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the ink makes the letters. Rav Kook takes it one step further, and declares that the white space is the higher form of Torah. He writes, “It is analogous to the white fire of Sinai — a sublime, hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual manner.” 

        The importance of the vessel is often mistaken for the importance of the idea. That, I think, is our tradition’s contention with the worship of idols. It muddles the relationship between what is important - the abstract, the Beyond - and what is not important: the concrete, the easily-attainable, the container. We do this all the time. That, I think, is the underlying message of Parashat T’rumah. That’s why it is a blueprint to what would otherwise have been a mystery: 

        Remember what is important in life. It is rarely, if ever, about the things that we could conceivably hold in our hands. 


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