Terumah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19)


The third “act” or major theme of the Book of Exodus now begins: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where sacrifices where offered and God’s Presence was felt. This portion and ones following go into great detail describing God’s instructions to Moshe as to how the Mishkan should be built and what the various components are, including the menorah or lamp and an altar for sacrifices. Terumah means something like “contribution” or “expected donation,” and thus the very name of this parsha conveys the idea that every Israelite was asked to contribute gold, silver, copper, wool, animal skins, precious stones, wood, and so on, so that the Mishkan would represent the efforts of the entire nation.

There is also a special reading this week from the book of Deuteronomy, because on Shabbat before Purim we fulfill the commandment to remember [Hebrew zachor] the treachery of the Amalekites when Israel was leaving Egypt. Haman, the bad guy of the Purim story, is understood to be a descendant of Amalek, so in this way we connect the two stories.


“There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” (Exodus 25:22)


The Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, had three “zones:” the innermost holy place, surrounded by a kind of intermediate holy zone, and next to it was a sort of courtyard which contained the altar where sacrifices were made. The first two zones made up a square, and the courtyard for sacrifices was also a square, so when you put the two next to each other the whole thing was a rectangle of two equal parts.

The “holy of holies” was at the geographical centre of the “holiness zone,” and the altar for offerings was at the geographical centre of the adjoining courtyard. The Ark which contained the tablets of the covenant was in the centre of the most sacred space, described in our verse above. God’s Presence was understood to be most palpable in that central spot.

This description, and an excellent diagram, can be found in the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus- but many other Torah commentaries have diagrams as well, which are helpful in understanding this parsha and the ones that follow it.


The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna, author of the JPS commentary cited above, makes an interesting observation regarding the structure of the Mishkan. Noticing that there are parallel layouts of a square with something in the centre of it, Sarna says that these really represent two different kinds of religious experiences:

    From the Ark in the Holy of Holies, God reaches out to Israel; from the altar of sacrifice, the Israelites reach out to God.

Sarna bases this comment on our verse above, and others like it, which describe the Presence of God being felt from out of the holy of holies. Now, one could raise the objection that God’s Presence is everywhere, at all times, but I think that when the Torah describes this “most holy” place, it’s telling us something about people’s experience. The people themselves may have needed a kind of “focal point” in their spirituality, especially after coming out of a society which had many visual images of the various deities.

Whatever the reason for constructing a “holy of holies,” I think Sarna’s point still very much applies today. Both kinds of religious experience seem to be necessary: if we never felt God reaching out to us, then we’d feel spiritually lonely and uncomforted; but if we never had to do the reaching out ourselves, we would not grow and learn reverence and humility over the course of our lives. In the Mishkan, both kinds of reaching out are balanced, represented by the equal squares of the “holy zone” and the sacrificial courtyard. This is an architectural representation of a religious ideal: sometimes God reaches for us, and sometimes we reach for God, perfectly balanced.

I think these two kinds of religious experience are still very operative today, but clearly not in balanced physical spaces like the Mishkan. Rather, I think that contemporary Judaism finds its balance in the two modes of study and prayer. The famous American rabbi Louis Finkelstein is reported to have said that “when I pray, I talk to God, but when I study, God talks to me.”

Study of sacred texts, especially in community, allows us to hear God’s voice echoing not only from the words on the page, but also through the people around us. Generations of Jews have struggled with Torah, with the Prophets, with the Talmud and the commentaries, and their questions can help immeasurably in finding our answers. The very existence of Kolel, as an institution of Torah learning, is based on the idea that our most sacred texts contain the most important challenges to the religiously striving Jew.

Prayer, on the other hand, can be thought of as “putting out” rather than a “taking in,” at least some of the time. Prayer can be a time of pouring out one’s emotions, hopes and fears, articulating clearly the truth of one’s existence. Prayer can be joyous or somber, grateful or hopeful, but I think it should have an element of seeking to extend beyond ourselves, seeking to bring God into the situation of our lives.

R. Finkelstein’s quip notwithstanding, I don’t wish to suggest that prayer is exclusively one thing or that study can never have an element of seeking to it, and of course sometimes prayer and study are intertwined, as when we recite the Shema or Psalms. However, the visual symbolism of this week’s Torah portion reminds us that balance is crucial to the spiritual life; there are different ways of being in God’s Presence, and one does not have priority over the other. Sometimes we have to create a space in which God can reach out to us, and sometimes we have to create a space in which we reach out to God.

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