Archive for Terumah

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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