Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Mishkan?

In Parshat Terumah, we are given explicit details about how to build the mishkan, the Tabernacle that traveled with the nation of Israel through the wilderness. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman suggests that the mishkan might represent a hidden 'face' - and asks us to think about who we really are, our physical bodies, or the souls that lies behind them?


Parshat Terumah


Hi everybody, Rabbi David Fohrman here and welcome to Parshat Terumah.

In this week’s Parsha, we get a detailed list of instructions as to how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the building in whose presence God dwells among the people. I want to take a moment with you to point out something that I found astounding in the structure that’s being described in this Parsha. What I am going to say may sound strange, but it’s just an observation and the implications of it, as I am going to try and explain to you, are not perhaps as controversial as they may at first seem.

Imagine looking at the Mishkan from a birds-eye view. What does it look like? Let’s just sketch it out and then let’s just play a little Rorschach test with it. Rorschach tests are those psychological tests where they show you a bunch of random ink blots and you need to free associate and tell what it is that those ink blots look like to you. Let’s do that here with this sketch that we are going to create; what does this composite picture looks like to you?

So the first thing we hear about is a Holy Ark, an Aron, and inside that Ark are the two Tablets of the Luchot Ha-Brit, the Tablets on which were written the original Ten Commandments. So that’s the Ark and it in a section called the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, the Holy of Holies and that’s separated from the rest of the Mishkan with a curtain.

The next major thing we find is the Menorah, this very large candelabrum, and on the opposite side we’ve got a table and on the table, we’ve got ‘show-bread’, bread that was left there for an entire week and not eaten until it was finally consumed by the Kohenim and replaced. And then if we continued down in the schematic of the Mishkan, right there in the middle, you’ve got an altar. This is a very small altar. It’s known as the “mizbeach ha-ktoret,” the altar on which incense would be burned. And then, just below that you have a much, much larger altar which was connected to a very long ramp and this would be the altar on which animal offerings were offered and on which the fire would consume them. So here we’ve got our little schematic. And if you look at this from a birds-eye view and you didn’t know what you were looking at and you were just playing this little Rorschach game, what would you say this looks like?

So, I don’t know about you, but I would say this looks like a face. Right up here at the top where the ‘Aron’ is, that’s where kind of the brain would be and of course think what’s in the Aron, in this Ark. It’s the two Tablets of the Law. And how do we relate to that?  We relate to it cognitively, with our brain. Then right below that we would have sort of the two eyes, which would be the Menorah and the table. And, of course, think of what function the Menorah has, and for that matter what’s on the table. For virtually a whole week what’s on the table doesn’t get consumed. It’s just there to look at. It’s show-bread. And of course, what do you need in order to be able to see anything? You need light, provided by the Menorah. Of course the two elements of sight is, you need something to look at and you need light by which to see it.

The Menorah, one of the eyes as it were, provides the light. The table, the other eye as it were, provides something to look at: the bread that’s on show. And right below that, right where a nose should be, you've got the incense altar. And of course how do we relate to incense? We smell it. And right below that, we have this very long thing that sorts of looks like a mouth; it’s an altar on which offerings are consumed. What do we do with the mouth? We consume things.

It seems like a face. And not only does it looks like a face, the functions of each of these things line up with exactly their corresponding function within a face. It seems like there must be something here. But what do we make of this? What does it mean? The notion that God would have a face seems theologically very scary. We don’t believe that God has any form at all. You can’t touch Him, you can’t feel Him. What are we supposed to do with this idea?

Now as crazy as this idea might sound, if it’s true, there is some interesting resonance of it within some verses. Think, for example, of the priestly blessings that Aaron, the High Priest and his children would say, the blessing that we continue to say to our own children, the blessing that was actually said upon the completion of the Mishkan. “Yevarech’cha HaShem veyishmerecha,” let God bless you and keep you, “ya’er HaShem panav eleicha vayechunecha,” let God shine His face upon you, and grant you grace, “yisa HaShem panav eleicha vayasem l’cha shalom,” let God lift up His face to you and grant you peace. What word keeps on appearing there? The word ‘face,’ a word that we are actually attributing to God, God’s face.

Now, we always understand that metaphorically because obviously God doesn’t have a face. It means that God should in some way turns towards us, pay attention to us, and grant us things like serenity and peace. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is the blessing that Aaron and his children first said to the Jewish people upon the completion of the Mishkan. Maybe the Mishkan, on some level, is God’s face in this world. What I mean by that, of course, is not to say that the Mishkan is part of God. Of course it’s not. It’s just a building. But if you think about who you are, are you your face? Or is your face really just a building, a place of residence for what you really are? Which brings us to: who are you really? That’s something I want to explore with you next week. I’ll see you then and we’ll try to put this all together.


Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There is a little space for comments underneath these videos, please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.

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