Terumah: The Path of Gratitude

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

It’s been a week of surprises, what with the Super Bowl
and the election results and all that, but on the other hand, the
Torah portion Terumah follows the portion Mishpatim, every year, you
can count on it. In fact, the portion Terumah begins a major shift in
the focus of the book of Shmot/Exodus, from the story of the
Israelites leaving Egypt to the many details of building the Mishkan,
or portable Sanctuary. Because we no longer have a Mishkan, or its
successor institution, the Mikdash [Temple] in Jerusalem , there are
many mitzvot [commandments] in this and the following Torah portions
which are no longer operative.

On the other hand, we can still gain insight into contemporary
practice from the commentary on these mitzvot, some of which are
evoked in spirit even if we can’t actually do them as intended in a
central place of worship. For example, in this week’s portion we read
about the “lechem panim,” or “showbread,” which were 12 loaves set on
a table in the Mishkan and left on display from Shabbat to Shabbat.
(Cf. Shmot/Exodus 25:30.)

Low-carb diets notwithstanding, various commentators explain the
lechem panim as a way to remind the Israelites to be grateful for
their own bread, seen as the paradigmatic blessing as the staple of
life. Abravanel links the “showbread” to the manna, the miraculous
food from heaven, which is itself a symbol of blessing and abundance.
To be grateful for one’s bread was to inculcate a general orientation
towards gratitude and thanksgiving- it was a path towards wonder at
the fact that we can be sustained from the earth.

We no longer have a Mishkan, but we do retain the practice of bringing
two whole loaves to a Shabbat or holiday table and starting a meal
with the blessing of gratitude for bread, which then includes any
other food we might eat afterwards. One commentator, quoted in Chill’s
The Mitzvot, compares our home tables to the altar of the Mishkan, and
says that just as the lechem panim- the “showbread”- was an offering
to God, our home tables are also places where offerings to God are
made, and this is the food we share with the poor.

Giving thanks for our bread helps us be continually conscious of our
dependence on the good Earth we are blessed to live on, and also helps
us to remember that while bread may be a simple meal, there are those
who are crying out for even that. To be grateful is to be humble, and
to remember that our needs are simpler than we usually imagine, and
that we are given only to be able to share- and for these, we don’t
need a Mishkan, just an open heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


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