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.

The Sin of Avoidance

Parashat Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach Lecha, tells of one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the People of Israel during its sojourn in the wilderness. Commonly referred to as the “sin of the spies,” this incident becomes the very reason it would take the people 40 years to enter the Promised Land. During those 40 years, the entire generation of Israelites that left Egypt, save two men — Joshua and Caleb — would perish. Only the generations born in the wilderness, those who never experienced slavery in Egypt, would merit possessing the land.

In chapter 13 of the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers) God instructs Moses to “Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (13:2). In fulfilling God’s bidding, Moses says to the scouts (or spies), of which there was one from each tribe: “‘Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land'” (13:17-20).

What Moses asks for is “just the facts.” However, what the scribes bring back is a report with too much commentary. The scouts effectively undermine the people’s faith in God and once again ready them to return to Egypt: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13:32-33).

Incensed at the scouts and those who joined them in fearing that Israel would never be able to possess the land that God had promised their ancestors, God declares that the generations of Israelites that left Egypt would be doomed to wander for 40 years, one year for each day the scouts were on their mission. This would be enough time to ensure that younger, more faithful Israelites would eventually take over the leadership of the tribes and then conquer the land of Canaan. The People needed optimistic leaders who wouldn’t easily be swayed to abandon their divine mission only to bear the shackles of slavery in Egypt once again.

For a brilliant interpretation of why the generation of the scouts was punished by God as it was, I urge you to read the article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf. Rabbi Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of England from 1991 to 2013 and is one of the most astute readers and teachers of Torah in the world today. In answering his own question — “Why did the spies err so egregiously?” — Rabbi Sacks shares a Hassidic train of thought that the spies preferred the wilderness life over the life that would come with building a nation in the Land of Israel (http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf). In the wilderness, the people felt close to God and they could focus on serving God free of responsibilities like plowing and harvesting, self-defense, maintaining a welfare system, etc. In reality, though, Rabbi Sacks writes, “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand” (ibid.).

As we go through life, we often face obstacles that initially feel insurmountable, and it is tempting to simply back away from the obstacles and abandon whatever it was we were hoping to achieve. Had the spies had their way, the People of Israel would have returned back to Egypt, leaving Canaan for another nation to conquer. But that was not God’s plan. So eventually a generation arose with the resolve to see God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to fulfillment. We must show similar resolve in our lives to do the hard, sometimes frightening work required to enjoy a life of meaning and to make the world a better place for all humanity. It is our task to make God’s love manifest for all God’s creatures; this can only happen when we overcome isolation and avoidance to engage the “real world.”