Parashat Teruma: The Message of the Shulhan
Parashat Teruma describes the Mishkan, the portable Bet Ha’mikdash which accompanied Beneh Yisrael as they traveled in the wilderness, and which would eventually be replaced by the permanent Bet Ha’mikdash.
Among the more surprising features of the Mishkan – and, later, of the Bet Ha’mikdash – is the Shulhan (table). The Shulhan contained twelve loaves of bread, which were baked each week and then eaten by the Kohanim. We might, at first glance, wonder what a table with bread would be doing in the Mishkan, the site of sanctity and of the divine presence. Why does G-d want there to be bread in the holiest site in the world?
The answer is precisely that the ideal of Kedusha encompasses all aspects of life, including our physical pursuits. Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not view physical activity as inherently evil or impure. To the contrary, one of our main challenges and obligations as Torah Jews is to raise and elevate physical life. We are not able or expected to live as angels. The Torah commands in last week’s Parasha, Parashat Mishpatim, "Ve’ansheh Kodesh Tihehun Li" – "You shall holy people to Me." The Rebbe of Kotzk commented that we are to first strive to be "Ansheh" – "people," human beings – and only then strive for the level of "Kodesh." We become "holy" not by abstaining from physical activity, which we are incapable of doing, but rather by elevating physical activity, by engaging in mundane affairs in the way the Torah instructs. The Torah encourages us to eat, sleep and get married so that we can elevate the physical aspects of life by engaging in them in the manner prescribed by Halacha.
And thus there is a Shulhan with bread in the Bet Ha’mikdash, symbolizing the fact that food is not to be kept out of Torah life. Quite to the contrary, food is very much a part of Torah life, which requires us to elevate our eating to a spiritual plane.
This concept is expressed nowadays in many ways, including the fact that our synagogues are places where we not only pray and study, but also eat. Many synagogues serve breakfast and refreshments, and many synagogues have social halls where festive meals and celebrations are held. This is based on the model of the Bet Ha’mikdash, which had a Menorah – the symbol of Torah wisdom – an altar – the symbol of worship and sacrifice to G-d – as well as a table with bread. We eat meals in the synagogue to proclaim that our physical activities are also part of the "Mikdash," that the ideals of Kedusha extend to all areas of life.
The Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles of Cracow, 1525-1572) begins his glosses to the Shulhan Aruch by citing the verse, "Shiviti Hashem Le’negdi Tamid" – "I place Hashem in front of me at all times." He concludes his glosses to the first section of the Shulhan Aruch by citing a different verse that contains the word "Tamid": "Tob Leb Mishteh Tamid" – "A festive heart is always good." The first verse speaks of our inherently spiritual activities, how we must spend time focusing on and serving the Almighty, whereas the second verse speaks of "Mishteh" – festivity and celebration. Both aspects of life are included in the obligation of "Tamid," of constant, uninterrupted subservience to the Almighty. Whether we are involved in prayer or "Mishteh," our goal must be to serve our Creator, as even our mundane activities can be approached as an opportunity to draw close to Hashem by elevating them to a lofty spiritual level.