Archive for Terumah

Terumah: A Clear Vision

I am pleased to note that this Torah commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America as part of its Mekor Chaim weekly email.

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:  Terumah

It [the lamp and its parts] shall be made, with all these furnishings, out of a talent of pure gold. See and then make the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain. (Shemot/ Exodus 25:39-40)

The Torah portion Terumah is all about the building of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary and its vessels and implements, constructed from the people’s donations of precious stones, gold, silver, bronze, fabrics, skins and wood. The instructions given to Moshe are very detailed, describing the tent-like outer walls and the instruments of worship such as the altar, table, basins, Ark and lampstand, or menorah.

The instructions for the seven-branched lampstand, beginning in 25:31, give us the basic shape many will think of as a symbol of the Jewish people and the State of Israel: seven branches, symmetrical, three branches with lamp cups on each side and one in the middle. On the other hand, the details are hard to construct with precision, at least from the verses in the Torah, and in fact there is a great deal of discussion among the ancient rabbis about the exact shape and form of the golden menorah.

This difficulty seems to be acknowledged in the verse above, wherein Moshe is told to make the menorah as he was shown on the mountain. According to some rabbinic interpretations, Moshe was shown a visual image of the menorah, perhaps even a pattern of fire from heaven, in order to correctly grasp the shape and design.

These midrashim, or ancient commentaries, which suggest that Moshe was given a vision of the menorah in addition to instructions, suggest that as the leader of the people, he had to “begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey famously taught. Note that we commonly use the word vision to mean not only a graphic representation but also a sense of purpose, a better future imagined for ourselves and our community, or a clear idea of what we’d like to become by doing something important and meaningful.

Thus, we might say that Moshe had to have a vision of the menorah in both senses of the word, because as a leader he had to have a vision for the Mishkan, the people, and the journey they were about to undertake. Moshe had to be able to see ahead to the people’s success in becoming a free people in their own land, and tell the people in clear terms how their vision as a community might become reality.

The menorah was, and is, a symbol of the Jewish people as a sovereign nation, guided by the light of God and our common purpose as a people. The image of Moshe seeing the pattern of the menorah– indeed, envisioning the entire Mishkan- in all its details is an image of leadership, for a true leader helps her community imagine greater things and a brighter future. A Jewish leader sees not just what to build, but why it’s important, and invites the entire people to unite together, towards building something holy and lasting, according to a powerful vision joined to a call to action. That was leadership in Moshe’s days, and no less in ours.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Terumah: Build It and Use It!

Copyright 2014  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah 
Then set up the Mishkan according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain. . . (Shmot/Exodus 26:30)
“After you finish it [the Mishkan] then set it up.” {Rashi}
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is mostly a set of instructions and descriptions for building the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary where offerings were made and the Divine Presence dwelt. The Mishkan is boards, sockets, gold implements, fabric, leather and many other fine materials, all assembled into a portable structure designed to be taken apart and carried from location to location. 
Right in the middle of the instructions for the outer structure- the planks and sockets and such- is the verse above, reminding Moshe to set up the Mishkan as he was shown on the mountain. This raises many questions about when, exactly, Moshe was shown the illustrations or images which would give him a clearer idea of the design and assembly of the Mishkan, but Rashi has the answer, above, to an even simpler question:  why tell Moshe to “set up” or “put up” the Mishkan if there have been verses and verses about how to build it? Isn’t it obvious that the whole point of building it is to put it up and use it? 

Well, as we can see from Rashi’s comment above, he thinks our verse does teach a distinction between building and setting up the Mishkan, and from a purely formal view, of course he’s right. One could assemble all the pieces of any large project and then fail to put them all together, which might still be a technical fulfillment of a command to build the various pieces. Yes this is  sort of silly- of course Moshe knew that the point was not to build a bunch of pieces but a unified structure. 
So what’s the point of Rashi’s comment? Perhaps simply to remind us, the readers, that leaving final steps untaken is a ubiquitous aspect of human life. How many of us have achieved great insights through study or reflection- and then failed to take practical steps to implement them? How many of us have made glorious plans which never reach fruition? Yet I ask these questions not for condemnation but rather to evoke compassion, for the simple reason that “putting all the pieces together” of any new thing can be a great source of anxiety.
 After all, once Moshe finished the Mishkan he and the Israelites would have to embrace a whole new way of encountering the Divine Presence, and what could require more courage and openness than experiencing the Sacred in the very midst of the people? Change is hard; it is only human to avoid it. It’s poignant to think that even Moshe needed encouragement to take these changes as to their conclusion. 
“After you finish it, then set it up”- Rashi’s comment isn’t really about the Mishkanas a set of planks and boards, but about the Mishkan as a new way of being in and experiencing the world.  We have to build, and we have to make what we’ve built into a creative reality.  That was true for Moshe, and it’s true for us. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Terumah: What People Give

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Terumah 
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. . . (Shemot/ Exodus 25:2)
Dear Friends: 
Sorry about my absence from the internet last week but glad to be back with you today. 
The Torah portion Terumah begins the third act of the book of Exodus: the building of theMishkan, the portable Sanctuary, experienced as the place of the Divine Presence. At the beginning of the portion, Moshe is told to tell all the people to bring the gifts or voluntary offerings needed to build the Mishkan: precious metals, jewel stones, wood, fabric, skins, etc. The portions that follow go into great detail about every aspect of the building and maintenance of the structure, but for today let’s just reflect for a moment on the idea that all the people were to give, but they were to give as they were moved to do so. The word terumah, in this case, means an “offering” like other obligatory offerings (see more on that here) but the verse is very specific that each person was to offer what they had and what they wished. 
A perennial question arises out of this story: where did the people get the materials with which to build such a fancy Sanctuary? On the one hand, we might say that it was ordained from above that the people would take from the Egyptians and find in the wilderness what they needed to build the Mishkan-maybe it was all part of a Divine plan. That explains how it such precise instructions could be given to a bunch of former slaves in the desert, but it lessens, at least for me, the sense that the Mishkan was built out of the people’s love and reverence and desire to make a spiritual center for themselves. 
So perhaps we might say, instead, that the instructions for the MIshkan were given according to the people’s resources- that is, God told them to build a Mishkan based on what they had at that moment, so they could give freely out of love and free choice. This, in turn, suggests that what makes the Mishkan the holy center of the people is that it was build by all of them; some gave much and some gave little but the Divine Presence was made manifest when the gifts of each person were accepted and honored. 
Think of how our synagogues and Jewish communities would be if we decided we weren’t finished building community until each person’s gifts –  of mind, heart, spirit, money and time- were accepted and honored in joy. How could the Presence of the Sacred not be felt among such a community? 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Terumah: Planting for the Mishkan

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

“And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood . . . .” (Shemot/ Exodus 25:3-5)

Good morning!

This week we shift from the laws and principles governing society to the more specific instruction to build the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan was built with donation: precious metals, fabric, skins, and acacia wood. [Atzeh shittim in Hebrew.] Now, we learned back in Exodus 12 that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, so perhaps it’s not a mystery where the former slaves got those materials, but even our friend Rashi wonders where they got acacia wood in the middle of the Sinai desert.

Given the various miracles of water, manna, quail, etc, that the Torah reports from our ancestor’s time in the wilderness, you might think that the acacia wood, too, would be understood as a special provision from God. Yet Rashi instead brings from an earlier text a much more interesting interpretation:

“Rabbi Tanchuma explained: our forefather Yaakov saw through a Holy Inspiration that in the future Israel would build the Mishkan in the wilderness. So he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them, and told his children to take them along when they left Egypt.”

For the moment, let’s set aside the fact that the Torah text says acacia wood (perhaps this tree) and Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma as referring to cedar trees. [Arazim] The point, as I see it, is not so much about which tree was used to build the Mishkan, but rather that the Mishkan reflected the hopes and dreams of the ancestors of the generation that merited to build it. Contrary to the American myth of the self-reliant, self-made and utterly independent person, no generation builds anything without building on what has come before, and we are more dependent on the foresight of our ancestors than our pride would often care to admit.

In Rabbi Tanchuma’s midrash, Yaakov envisions that his descendants will need wood for their sacred structure and plans accordingly. One wonders if the generation of the Exodus appreciated what their forefather is portrayed as doing for them- and we might ask ourselves, in turn, if we are mindful of the dreams that our ancestors had for us, as individuals and in our communities. If somebody planted a tree- or built a synagogue, or funded an endowment, or left a legacy- so that we could build sacred things, should we not be both grateful and zealous to plant for future generations?

According to Rabbi Tanchuma, the Mishkan would not have been build if Yaakov hadn’t planted cedars in Egypt. It’s a remarkable portrait of hope and faith; the saplings that Yaakov brought to Egypt must have grown through the decades of oppression that the Israelites suffered, and perhaps became a source of spiritual strength for the generations before the Exodus. Who can imagine having the faith of Yaakov, who saw that the trees planted now will become the place of the Divine Presence a few hundred years hence? We draw upon the gifts of those who came before, and are thus reminded that for somebody in the not-too-distant future, we will be the ones who came before. What shall we leave them for building the place of God’s Presence as their times demand?

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for an ecological interpretation of the same midrash, see here.

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Terumah: Ready to Go

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

“Make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold; then insert the poles into the rings on the side walls of the ark, for carrying the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it.”
(Shmot/Exodus 25:13-15)

This week we make a major shift in the emphasis of the weekly Torah readings, from the narrative of the Exodus to the building of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, begins with the call to all the Israelites to donate wood, precious metals, jewels, fabrics, and leather for the construction of the Mishkan, which has various constituent parts and vessels. Among the most famous vessels was the Aron, or Ark, which was a gold-plated wooden box containing the tablets from Sinai, and which was carried by the Levites using long wooden poles run through rings on the sides. (One artist’s conception can be found here.)

One commentator, the author of the “Book of Education” or Sefer HaHinnuch, a 13th century textbook of the commandments, interprets verse 15, above, as a separate and permanent commandment not to remove these poles from the Aron, as long as the Aron itself existed. This book explains that the poles had to be permanently in their rings for carrying, for if the Levites had to move the Ark in a hurry, and it wasn’t properly prepared with sturdy, permanent poles, it might get dropped or mishandled. That, in turn, would be a grave dishonor to the Ark and the Torah itself, for the Aron is symbolic of how the Divine dwells among us by means of Torah, words of which were engraved on the tablets that the Aron carried.

Taking this idea a bit further, I love the idea of having a separate mitzvah [commandment] to be ready at any time to carry the tablets of Torah on our journeys! Too often, we think we’ve found exactly the right place in our spirituality, our perspectives and practices, and it’s tempting to settle there and say, the journey is over, I’ve arrived at my goal. The symbol of the poles of the Aron implies something different: always be ready to grow, to change, to seek new inspiration, to learn new things, to give up the comfort zone, to find the Divine in new and unexpected places. Be ready to go somewhere new, not for the sake of novelty alone, but for the sake of honoring that which is most sacred within you: your capacity to learn Torah, do Torah, be Torah. The Levites had to be ready to carry the Ark to new places; our task is to be equally ready to carry ourselves to new places.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Terumah: A House of Holiness

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah portion Terumah begins the third section of the book of Exodus, which is the instructions for and completion of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary.

Good morning!

This week we begin reading a difficult section of the book of Exodus; from the grand narrative of the escape from slavery and the drama of the revelation at Sinai we move to the slower-paced and greatly detailed description of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Yet one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah is found amidst the technical plans:

“They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.. . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 25:8)

In Hebrew, there’s an interesting and oft-commented-upon nuance: “in their midst,” from shachanti b’tocham, can be translated as literally “in them,” which turns the verse from a promise about what will happen if you build a sacred space in the middle of the camp to what will happen if you create a sacred space in the soul of each individual.

That’s a lovely interpretation and I commend you to study further the many sources and sermons built on it. Today, however, I want to go the other direction, back to the notion of a physical structure where we experience kedushah, or holiness. Our old friend Rashi (it’s been too long) interprets “they shall make Me a Sanctuary” as “they will make for My Name a house of holiness,” in Hebrew a bayit kedushah.

Now, this is interesting. Remember that the portable Sanctuary, or Mishkan, gets its name from the idea of the Divine Presence “dwelling” in the structure; Mishkan is derived from the word meaning “to dwell,” related to words like neighbor and neighborhood. Rashi, on the other hand, seems to imply that it’s not so much that God “dwells” in the sacred structure (since the Divine Presence is not more one place than another) but that we who enter it have a particular kind of experience there.

That is, we build a “house of holiness” because kedushah– holiness- is our experience of spiritual and ethical expansion and transformation. Much of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus conveys moral and religious practices which help us become a “holy people;” the key point is that it’s our decisions which make the difference. So as I read Rashi, he’s saying: the point is not that God inherently or objectively “dwells” in the Mishkan– or synagogue or shrine or anywhere else- but rather, it’s our responsibility to create places where we are open to our own potential for holiness. In this view, it’s not that the Presence is “in” the Mishkan, and therefore we are transformed, but the other way around: if we build holy places and enter them in humility and radical openness, we may experience the Presence as a result.

This, in turn, is why I wish American synagogues were not named “Temples,” because it’s not the place, but the congregation, that is the significant religious fact. The place reflects the hearts of those who pray there; without open hearts, a synagogue is just stone and mortar. The Presence depends on the people.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Terumah: Mere Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

Adar is upon us but hopefully this week’s commentary on the haftarah
will not fall into the category of “Purim Torah.”

The book of Shmot, or Exodus, takes a thematic turn this week as we
shift from the laws of civil society to the laws of building the
Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The plans for the Mishkan were laid
out in great detail in this section of Shmot, and it’s always
interesting to study them. Our haftarah continues the story some
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, when the details of the
Mikdash, or Jerusalem Temple, are laid out as King Shlomo [Solomon]
arranges and supervises its construction.

The haftarah, from the first book of Kings, describes how Shlomo made
a treaty with the king of Lebanon in order to secure building supplies
for the Temple- so far, so good. However, unlike the description of
the free-will offerings of people which went into the construction of
the Miskhan, the king decrees forced labor, sending thousands of men
to Lebanon to bring the stones back to Jerusalem.

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch sees an ominous tension between the two narratives
of building sacred spaces- in the Torah, the freed slaves gave
willingly of all they had to build the Mishkan, whereas in First
Kings, the people are under the king’s orders, and there is little
joy- and no choice- involved in the project. To Hirsch, the final
verse of the haftarah is a warning to Shlomo not to mistake a
beautiful building for a truly sacred place:

” Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon, ‘With regard to this
House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules
and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the
promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the
children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’ ” (1
Kings 6:11-13)

What made the Temple- well, the Temple- was not where and with what
materials it was constructed, but that the presence of the Sacred was
felt to be “dwelling” there among the people of Israel. To achieve
that required not physical but spiritual architecture- starting at the
top, with a clear understanding on the part of the king that it was
his moral standing which gave him the right to build the Temple, and
not the reverse.

Hirsch’s interpretation of the haftarah is timeless, and not limited
to Judaism. Human beings, being embodied inhabitants of the physical
world ( a good thing!), have a tendency to confuse the “klipah,” the
outer shell of a thing, for the inner experience. Buildings are not
congregations; prayerbooks are not prayer; the Torah is not words on a
page but a dialogue which shapes covenental love and connection.

It humbles me to think that even Shlomo, ostensibly the wisest man of
his generation, needed to be reminded that the Temple was mere stone
if the people did not experience the Sacred within its walls. Even the
ancient Temple was only worthy of its name- Mikdash, the holy place-
if the king built it and the people approached it deeply committed to
the moral covenant which is the true center of Jewish life. Buildings
are not congregations – but they can house congregations, and only
then be filled with the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom,


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