Terumah: We Have the Tools We Need

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023 

Torah Portion: Terumah 

 וְהַבַּיִת, בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ–אֶבֶן-שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע, נִבְנָה; וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל-כְּלִי בַרְזֶל, לֹא-נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ

When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. (1 Kings 6:7) 

Sorry for missing out on last week, had to call out sick, but all good now. 

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is about the building of the Mishkan, down to its smallest details of decoration and architecture. The theme of building sacred space is carried on in the haftarah for this week, from 1 Kings, in which King Shlomo (Solomon) sends tens of thousands of men to Lebanon to bring back materials for the building of the Mikdash, or Temple, in Jerusalem. 

Now, you may remember that two weeks ago, when discussing the Torah portion Yitro, we learned that the stones of the altar of the Mishkan must  be made of unhewn stone, not fashioned by iron tools. Now look at the verse at the top, from this week’s haftarah: it says that the stones for the Mikdash were cut at the quarry, so that no ax or iron tool was heard at the site of the Temple itself. (See also the verse 1 Kings 7:9, which also explicitly says all the buildings were made of hewn stones.) 

Hmm, that doesn’t quite jibe with what we learned two weeks ago, does it? The JPS Haftarah commentary brushes off the contradiction, positing that the verse above is fully aware of the prohibition in the Torah, and this is the Biblical author’s way of harmonizing the verses. Many other commentators agree, including Rashi on the verse from chapter 7. He brings the same explanation to another verse from this week’s haftarah, verse 5:31. In both cases he explains that it’s not a violation to use iron tools at the quarry, just at the Temple itself. 

However, for our verse above, from chapter 6, Rashi brings a famous midrash to explain the “hewn at the quarry” contradiction. This is the midrash of the shamir, a unique creature that was set into the stone and shaped it, so that no iron tool was needed. (Some say the shamir was a kind of stone stylus that cut the rocks into their shapes.) The rabbis still have a problem, though. The various verses above say that the stones at the quarry were hewn, so one solution is to say that the shamir cut the stones for the Mikdash and the stones for the king’s palace were cut with iron. (Cf: Talmud Sotah 48b.) A third possibility mentioned by the rabbis in Sotah goes like this: if it’s permissible to cut stones at the quarry with iron, why do you need the shamir at all? Answer: the shamir cut the precious gems of the High Priest’s breastplate. 

What do we do with all this? A famous paragraph from Pirkei Avot says that there were ten things created just before twilight on the 6th day of creation- that is, they were the last things created and placed into the world. (Pirkei Avot 5:6, and check out the commentaries.) These are all miraculous things that can’t be explained by the laws of nature, such as the donkey that spoke to Bilaam or the ram that was caught in the bushes to be offered in place of Yitzhak. The idea is that these special phenomena were created once and put in just the right place to reveal themselves at just the right time, just once. 

One could argue that this is the rabbis throwing up their hands at miracles that can’t be explained, but if you look at the list in Avot, you’ll see that every one of these belief-defying marvels also has a strong and clear moral meaning. The ram was offered instead of Yitzhak because human sacrifice is theologically and ethically obscene. The donkey speaks to Bilaam because smart people who justify their immoral actions can be rebuked by the example of a simple pack animal, which serves loyally and without betrayal or guile. Proposing that all these miracles were created as one-offs, placed into creation at the beginning, isn’t about “we can’t explain this.” Rather, I believe the rabbis are saying “we’re not worried about how the miracle got there, because that’s not the point of the story.” 

The meaning of the shamir, the stone-cutting worm or whatever it is, isn’t about fabulous fantasy creatures. The deeper idea is that the Holy One cares how our sacred spaces are constructed, and gave us the religious and moral capacity to build beautiful, inclusive, kind, reverent Jewish spaces and organizations, if we will avail ourselves of the spiritual tools we already have. We can’t build a reverent and awe-filled community with cynical or immoral means. When it comes to synagogues and other spiritual organizations, there’s no separating process and product. That’s the moral point of the prohibition against hewn stones in the Temple. The shamir comes along not to fix a problem in the text, but to renew our faith that we have the tools we need already in hand.

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