Parashah Ponderings

Mining the Torah for Gems: The Case of Parashat Terumah

Parashat Terumah / פרשת תרומה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

In this week’s portion, Parashat Terumah, God gives Moses instructions to build the ark that would contain the tablets of the covenant between God and Israel, the menorah that would stand in the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle itself. The word “terumah” refers to the voluntary offerings of materials – minerals, stones, fabrics, dyes, oil and spices — that Moses was to take from the Israelites to build these things and other holy objects. If you’re into lists, you’ll love this week’s reading!

The lists and instructions in Terumah, however, may very well cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. Unlike the narrative components of Torah, the details of the Tabernacle do not provide the most engaging reading. To be sure, Terumah is just one of many portions dedicated to seemingly mundane or esoteric topics relating to the priestly system, much of which can be difficult to access without a full appreciation of their significance to biblical Israel or to us today. Without the willingness to discover transcendent meaning in the details of the Torah, the Torah itself will appear to many people as a massive rock that cannot be penetrated, when in truth, the Torah is an endless mine of precious gems.

Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th century Spanish commentator also known simply as Abarbanel, feels the pain of those who try to find meaning in Torah but fall short when they encounter the complex, drier sections of Torah, such as we have in Terumah. Speaking to the Jewish community of his own day, Abarbanel writes:

Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have not value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.[1]

Clearly, we are not the first generation to struggle with the Torah’s density, but as Abarbanel suggests, there’s much to be learned from the Torah if we’re willing to look closely and patiently at the text and, I would add, be a little creative.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to Torah comes this week in relation to the construction of “an ark of acacia wood,” the portable container for the tablets of the Ten Commandments:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold — overlay it inside and out — and make upon it a gold molding round about.  (Exodus 25:10-11)

The late 11th century commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, aka Rashi, helps us visualize these instructions:

Bezalel (the master craftsman, who oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents) made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. Each one had four walls and a bottom, and they were open on the top. He placed the wooden one inside the golden one and the [other] golden one inside the wooden one. He covered the upper rim with gold, thus it is found that [the wooden one] was overlaid from inside and from outside [with gold]. — [from Yoma 72b, Shek. 16b][2]

Rashi demonstrates that the ark is a complicated structure. Though God instructs Moses to build simply “an ark of acacia wood,” the ark is in fact three boxes, one made of wood, two made of gold.

The rabbis of the Talmud take this description of the ark and transform it into a lesson about the integrity of Torah scholars: Any Torah scholar who is not the same on the inside as on the outside, is no Torah scholar [Yoma 72b]. That is, as pure as one appears to be on the outside, one must also be in the inside. This is an ideal not just for Torah scholars, I believe, but for all of us.

There is yet another message to be found in the construction of the ark.[3] Why couldn’t the ark be made of just the two gold boxes? What need is there for the box of acacia wood as well? One answer is that in many respects human beings are most like this wooden layer. Unlike gold, which is a pure, unchanging metal, wood comes from trees, which grow and change over time. We may want to present ourselves to the world as pure in thought and resolute in belief, like the outer box of gold, which can be seen by all. We may want to present ourselves to God with similar purity and resoluteness, like the inner box of gold, which is closest to the tablets and seen only by God. On the way to achieving such purity and resoluteness, though, we humans need to be able to work out our ideas, acknowledge our doubts, and struggle with whatever keeps us from maximizing our intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual potential. That work of self-improvement is often done in solitude, out of the public eye. Furthermore, it is work made possible by the gift of free will; even God provides us the space to keep on growing.

There is much more to be learned from the Torah’s treatment of the ark and the Tabernacle than I can possibly touch upon here. Indeed, the mine of Torah never ceases to yield brilliant gems. Unless one is prepared to do the work to discover those gems, however, the Torah will always appear as a big, impenetrable rock.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Carasik, Michael. The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. p. 215.

[2] Ibid., p. 219.

[3] See, for example, http://www.aish.com/tp/b/sw/Holy-Inside-and-Out.html.

Parashah Ponderings

Building God’s Dwelling Place: All for The One and The One for All

Parashat Tetzaveh / פרשת תצוה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Beginning with last week’s Torah reading and most of the rest of the Book of Exodus generally deals with establishing the central religious structure and leadership of biblical Israel, that is the mishkan (Tabernacle) and its accoutrements and the priesthood with its garb and ritual ordination. The mishkan itself was viewed by our ancestors as the dwelling place of God on earth, the Ark of the Covenant at its center representing God’s footstool. Yet, the raison d’etre of the mishkan was not as a hermitage for God but as a meeting place for God and Israel. In this sense, then, the mishkan served the needs of the Israelites every bit as much as it was deemed to serve God’s. This was where God could be known to Israel and where Israel could relate God.

In Parashat Terumah, which we read last week, God instructs Moses to “take for me freewill offerings” (Exodus 25:2) that will be used in the construction of the mishkan. As I mentioned in my discussion of Terumah, God asked the people for very specific things, but expected that they would offer them with open hearts. We thus imagine that every Israelite who was able to contribute had some emotional stake in creating God’s dwelling place. The idea that it is incumbent upon all of Israel to make our world hospitable for the Divine Presence is a powerful one that ought to motivate all of humanity today in everything from environmental conservation to just, compassionate governance.

At the same time, however, neither Israel’s largesse toward God nor humanity’s ongoing efforts to prepare the world for God’s indwelling presence are entirely without ulterior motive. Indeed, a counterpoint to “take for me freewill offerings” can be found in the command “take for yourself oil of beaten olives to light the flame (of the menorah) eternally” (Exodus 27:20). In essence, God is saying in these two commands “Do this for me, but do this for yourselves as well. “Mi casa es su casa,” if you will.

Reconstructionist Judaism defines God as “the power that makes for salvation.” I like to interpret that classic phrase of Mordecai Kaplan’s as suggesting that God is present in the goodness, compassion and beauty we human beings experience in this world. To make God manifest, then, we mustn’t expect miracles from on high, but rather work here and now to build our own mishkan out of goodness, compassion and beauty. If we build it, God will come.

When we build a world worthy of God’s inhabitance, we build a world where all beings can be in relation to God. When we build a dwelling place for God, we benefit from knowing that God is present in all that we do, that God is near, that God is real. We are not alone and our acts of lovingkindness and righteousness are not empty. We build a mishkan today not just for God, but for us, too.

I am moved by the complementary language of these two recent Torah portions: “take for me” and “take for you,” do this for my sake AND do this for your sake. In this pre-election cycle, I pray that candidates will emerge victorious who see as their mission not to build a nation and a world out of their own sense of self-importance but to create a space where the Divine can dwell and the lives of all people can be infused with the Holy. It’s best not to take chances, though: let us all now resolve to build the mishkan for God and for all God’s creation.