Archive for Terumah

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,

RNJL

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Further questions re: parshat Terumah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Hi everybody, something new is happening. Either I’m not
explaining myself well in the past few weeks, or it took time for
people to feel confident pushing back a little bit, but in either
case, I have two thoughtful critiques of my parsha studies
awaiting response in my in-box.

We’ll do one this week, and one next week.

First, my dear friend Alan, in the sadly hockeyless city of Toronto,
responded to last week’s parsha study, in which I spoke of the
vision of the “brickwork of sapphire” and the closeness of
Creator and Creation:

“Maybe there’s something I’m not getting here, but I’m having
some trouble with this idea that the earth is not separate from
God. Footstools aren’t normally of the same substance as feet,
are they? And, while theologically you’re coming from a different
place of course, part of the point of the first chapter of Paul’s
letter to the Romans, [in the New Testament] a very important text
for me certainly, is that there are grievous consequences when
we get confused about the relative places of the creature and the
Creator. ”

Good point, and I see that my language, which was meant to be
evocative, was also confusing. Part of the problem is that
theological language, which attempts to describe a reality that is
beyond words, is always somewhat poetic and imprecise, but
still, you’re right, “Creator” and “Creation” are not the same thing.

First, let me clarify that I do not mean “Creator” in any literal
sense- I do not believe in a literal, historical, 6 day Creation story.
What I do believe is that the Power or Source which enabled our
ancestors to break free of Egyptian bondage is the same Source
or initiator of a long, evolutionary process of the world unfolding
and becoming filled with life. In other words, God is One, and
there isn’t one spiritual source to our ideals of freedom and
another one which causes us to be overwhelmed with awe in the
natural world.

However, without going into a long discussion of the theology
called “panentheism” (Google it if you like), what I’d say is this:
Yes, the footstool is not the same as the foot, as it were, but just
using the word “footstool” implies a necessary relationship to
the idea of “foot,” just as the idea of “mother” is impossible
without the idea of “child.” You can’t call someone a “mother”
without naming a relationship; “mother” is not a concept that
stands on its own, but only works in connection with something
else.

This, to me, is how to understand the word “God;” it is
impossible to understand without reference to relationship- or, in
Jewish terms, covenant. We can’t understand the concept “God”
or “Creator” without implying, in the word itself, the idea of
“world” or “creation.” That’s what I was trying to say when I wrote
that Creator and Creation are not completely separate- we
understand these concepts as carrying the idea of relationship
within them, as essential to the very core meaning of the word.

What this implies for other aspects of our belief (or lack thereof)
is another story, but I hope this helps for now.

Questions? Problems? Objections?

Keep ’em coming. . . .

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Terumah: Building a Space for the Sacred

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

The book of Exodus is a story with three distinct sections: the
liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the building of
the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Beginning with this week’s
Torah portion, Terumah, the book of Exodus shifts its focus from
the “big-picture” religious and social laws of the previous two
portions to the design details of the Mishkan.

At first, the shift seems jarring, especially since the details of the
building of the Mishkan are often repeated – first given to Moshe,
and then recounted again when they are actually carried out. The
revelation at Sinai was such a big, dramatic event- with fire and
smoke and shofar sounds- that reading the rest of Exodus can
be (and has been) compared to studying the user’s manual for a
VCR or new computer; the level of detail, and lack of drama, can
make the eyes glaze over. (Trust me on this last point, I see it
from the bimah every year.)

So what’s it all about, and what are we supposed to get from all
these architectural instructions?

To me, one of the lessons in this shift from the Big Dramatic
Event at Sinai to the “VCR Manual” of building the Mishkan is the
very fact that life does not usually consist of Big Dramatic Events
on mountain tops, but is instead a daily struggle to fit our
spiritual commitments into the mundane details of ordinary life.
What happened at Sinai can be compared to those once-in-a-
lifetime events that forever change us: falling in love, the death of
a loved one or an encounter with our own mortality, being utterly
overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, a deep spiritual experience
in prayer or meditation, a flash of insight after a period of
searching and introspection.

Then the challenge becomes: OK, now what? How do I stay true
to my experience and my uplifted ideals while working, fulfilling
the obligations of family life, going on errands, being part of a
community, fixing broken appliances, doing my taxes, and so
on?

What the Mishkan represents is a shift that happens to many
people along their journeys: the transition from a life-changing
experience to the need for a regular spiritual practice, in order to
stay true to, and recreate, those extraordinary moments. The
Israelites could not stay at the base of Mt. Sinai forever, and
neither can an individual always expect to have dramatic bursts
of transformative spirituality. Instead of meeting God on the
mountain top, the Israelites had to proactively create a structure
to bring themselves into God’s Presence at precisely the same
time that they were dealing with all the distractions of figuring out
how to move a whole nation across the wilderness. (And you
think <you’ve> got some logistical problems. . . .)

Thus, the very building of the Mishkan, with all its attention to
detail, is itself the larger lesson: if we want to bring God into our
lives, we’re going to have to create spaces for that to happen, as
our ancestors did. By “spaces” I don’t primarily mean physical
places, though clearly a beautiful setting for worship helps open
the heart and focus the mind. A physical place for worship is only
meaningful if we come into it with humility and love; the space
we have to create is within ourselves (and often, in our
schedules) so that God can be part of the journey.

Spirituality rarely “just happens;” more often, it’s a daily
discipline, in the context of busy and distracted lives. In English,
we say “the devil is in the details,” but I think this week’s Torah
portion teaches the opposite: that by carefully and mindfully
creating spaces for the sacred, we can encounter the Divine
where we actually are, with no mountain tops required.

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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)

OVERVIEW

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.

IN FOCUS

“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)

PSHAT

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.

DRASH

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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Terumah 5760

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 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

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 parasha 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.

IN FOCUS

“This is the <terumah> that you shall take from them: gold, and silver, and copper. . . ” (Exodus 25:3)

PSHAT

Long before the actual building of the Mishkan, Moshe gets instructions from God dealing with both the social and architectural aspects of its construction. In our verse, God gives Moshe a long “shopping list” of construction materials that he will collect from the Israelites; gold, silver, and copper are at the top of the list, but he will also need to collect all kinds of other things as well, not just for the Mishkan but also for the special clothing that the priests will wear inside it.

DRASH

The famous 18th century preacher, the Maggid of Dubno, noticed that when King David wanted to build a permanent Temple in Jerusalem (a task that ultimately fell to his son Shlomo), he also mentioned gold, silver, and other precious metals as necessary construction materials. (Cf. 1 Chronicles 29). Could it be that God actually desires these things, which so many people have fought over and tried to amass? One could imagine God asking for God’s sanctuary to be made of plain materials, to teach the people humility and the priority of heart-orientation over precious-metals acquisition. The Maggid goes on to explain:

“Understand this, that God chose silver and gold and the like to build God’s Mishkan is not because God actually loves silver and gold- impossible! Rather, these things are valuable in the perspective of human beings, and when a person contributes to God something beloved, it is as if she gives her love to God. When all the contributions from all the Israelites were joined together, a dwelling place was made for the <Shechina>, as it is written: ‘He [King Shlomo] made its pillars of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple, in the midst of it inlaid lovingly by the women of Jerusalem. . .’ (Song of Songs 3:10)

It would have been fitting to command every Jew to give God his love, but how could one deal with such a spiritual matter, since every person’s love is deep in the heart? Thus God instructed [Moshe] to take for God a contribution in the form of a physical object, and along with the object the love is given over. . . . . ”
(Ohel Yaakov, quoted in Itturei Torah; my translation.)

Textually, the Maggid is picking up on the phrase “inlaid lovingly” in the verse from the Song of Song; the loving attention of the artisans who built the components of the Temple for King Shlomo is midrashically equated with the love that people gave to God when they donated valued things to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan in its day, the Temple in its day, and a synagogue or house of study in our day are all considered places where God’s Presence “dwells,” or is felt palpably. This is a powerful statement about the value of contributing to your local synagogue or study centre!

Theologically, the Maggid’s point is that what God really wants is not a physical sanctuary, but the love and devotion of each human heart. There is a famous phrase from the Talmud at the centre of much Hassidic thought: “God desires the heart.” (Sanhedrin 106b) The construction of the Mishkan, and later the construction of the Temple, which occupies page after page in the Bible, is here portrayed as a compromise measure! It’s a fascinating idea, again central to Hassidic and Mussar thought: God knows the desires of the human heart (for power, honor, money, and so on) and gives us a way to raise up those desires for holy purposes.

The lust for gold is a problem in the human community? Fine, then, let’s make God’s sanctuary of gold, so that when they give to God, as it were, they are raising up and making holy their seemingly “unspiritual” desire. Other examples of this idea from the classic texts include the idea that if one has a competitive streak, one should “do battle” with others in the realm of Torah, arguing vigorously for one’s ideas and interpretations, or if somebody really loves lots of gourmet food, let that person make the most beautiful meals for Shabbat and the holidays, inviting others to the table at sanctified times.

Please note, however, the end of the Maggid’s teaching: it would be nice if we could all be so spiritual all the time that we gave our love directly to God without any kind of intermediate steps, but as distractable human beings, it doesn’t seem to work that way. We need disciplines and structure and “baby steps” like prayer and study and mitzvot to be in steady relationship with the Holy One. What the Mishkan was about, in the Maggid’s interpretation, was creating a structure in which every person could participate at their own level- and that’s the necessary precondition for inviting God’s Presence into our community. We don’t all have to be super-spiritual types, we just have to give what we can.

Yet there is one more idea lurking in the Maggid’s interpretation. It seems to me that the Maggid is also implicitly challenging us with a question: do we really give that which we love and value to God? The Maggid suggests that it was gold in particular that God asked for in the construction of the Mishkan because that’s what people valued so much. In other words, it was a real sacrifice. Just think about it: a homemade cake might not taste as good as the most expensive bakery cake, yet it will most likely be more appreciated as a gift because the recipient knows that the giver extended him or herself to give it. As it says in another Mishna: “the one who gives much and the one who give a little are equal, as long as one directs one’s heart to Heaven.” (Menuchot 13:11)

I think the Maggid subtly extends this idea to our spiritual lives, and forces us to consider: do I give my best (time, effort, attention, presence, energy) to God, in the form of prayer, study, participation, care for others? Does study get my best attention or a few minutes of nodding off time? Is my spiritual community my priority or an afterthought? Do I give resentfully, or out of love?

Do I give my “silver and gold,” or the scraps left over? Just a question we all need to ask ourselves from time to time. . . .

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