Terumah: Parsha Commentary

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Terumah means donationParshat Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19)

LONGER ESSAYS

Meaningful Manual (2013)

Manatee Love (2012)

SHORT TAKES

Point of View (Terumah 5774/2014)

My husband reads instruction manuals like novels: relaxing in bed, remarking on interesting things, and praising verbal precision. He’s the sort of person who considers Parshat Terumah’s mishkan-building instruction manual “great literature.”

Those of us who prefer exciting plot, insightful character development, or deep existential questions react differently. Angst-ridden, we cry out, “Why? Why? Why? Why does Torah describe the mishkan’s construction in excruciating detail three times – first when Moshe receives the vision, second when he instructs Betzalel, and third when the Israelites donate materials so that Betzalel and staff can begin the work?”

This year, I thought I would quiet the inner drama queen, and actually look for answers. I found inspiration in the writings of Rav Kook (1865-1935), who contrasts Moshe’s theoretical point of view with Betzalel’s practical point of view, and the Maharal (1520-1609), who contrasts a known human point of view with a hidden Divine point of view.

Perhaps the repetition reminds us that the mishkan, like a synagogue, means different things to different people. To some, like Moshe when he receives the vision, it is a sacred space where people shed daily worries and allow themselves to reflect or speak with God. To others, like Betzalel as he begins to plan the work, it is a beautiful space, designed by community artisans, and filled with symbolically meaningful objects. And to others, like the donating Israelites, it is a social center, created by and for the people. Finally, God, the original designer, says it is a Divine dwelling place – and who knows the full purposes God has in mind?

Experience is subjective and knowledge is partial. Have you recently had a difference of opinion with someone who sees life differently? Can you broaden your heart and see with them?

hil in talit***

Colorful Wisdom (Terumah 5773/2013)

Techelet, v’argaman, v’tola’at shani – sky blue and purple with a crimson thread — are the colors of the mishkan, the spiritual pavilion tent at the center of the Israelite camp. Here the cohanim, priests, would help people navigate their inner lives, leading rituals for celebrations, mysteries, healings and transitions. Color played a role in these rituals.

R. Meir used to say: “Why is techelet different from all the other dyes? Techelet is like the sea. The sea is like the sky. The sky is like the Throne of Glory.” He means: Techelet dye is made from a small marine animal. This animal’s home, the sea, takes on the color of each day’s sky.  The sky inspires ecstatic visions of God’s home.

Literally, argaman means “woven.” Torah usually mentions argaman in the same sentence as two other colors: sky-blue, purple, and a crimson thread.” Perhaps argaman is a weave of blue and red that looks purple at a distance, a reminder to see life from multiple perspectives.

Tola’at shani looks like a bright, healthy earthworm, the kind that quietly maintains the earth. Sometimes the earth beneath our feet is shaken by death or sudden illness, as if the reliable earthworm has secretly failed. When this happens, Torah teaches, take some time off, and then reset your inner system with a ritual burning of a tola’at shani.

Mishlei (Proverbs) ends by describing a woman who lives everyday wisdom. She dresses in argaman, weaving awe of the holy with concern for the human inner life. Like the mishkan, she welcomes multiple perspectives while providing stability. Are you a person of colorful wisdom? How can you deepen its presence in your life?

Image: HFDK modelling a talit.

***

Where is the Mishkan? (Terumah 5772/2012)

The mishkan: literally, the “dwelling place of God.” In the text of the Torah, the mishkan is a magnificently crafted pavilion tent standing at the center of the Israelite camp.

But where, really, is the mishkan? Classical rabbinic midrash offers three answers.

(1) In the human being: Sure, people donated gold, silver, copper, blue threads, purple wool, and red threads – and these are also metaphors. People donated their golden souls, their silver bodies, their copper voices, their blue veins, their purple flesh, and their red blood. Only when people committed themselves to the common good could God find a dwelling place among the people.

(2) In the heavens: Sure, the mishkan is made of gold, silver, copper, blue threads, purple wool, and red thread – and these are also metaphors. The mishkan reflects the golden sun, the silver moon, the copper sunset, the blue sky, the purple clouds, the red rainbow. Only when things awesome and beautiful are reflected in behaviour can God find a dwelling place among the people.

(3) In the entire universe: Yes, the mishkan was made with curtains, dividers, a washbasin, and a menorah – and these are also metaphors. The world is also covered with the curtain of heaven, divided into earth and sky, filled with basins of water, and lit with a golden sun. The mishkan’s magnificence simply reminds us: God dwells everywhere around us.

The midrashic message: supporting community, yearning for spiritual connection, caring for the natural world — all these bring God’s presence into your heart.

***

Our Inner Dugong (Terumah 5771/2011)

Torah teaches that the Israelite community donates many gifts of the heart towards the building of the first Mishkan (communal sanctuary), including orot techashim – literally “dugong skins.” Some commentators recognize tachash as the name for a marine mammal native to Egypt. Others turn to linguistic evidence in the Tanakh, where tachash names a kind of fine leather.

Several beautiful midrashim weave all the findings together. One midrash suggests that the Israelites have never been as highly motivated a community as they were in the early years. According to this midrash, God created a creature called tachash, showed it briefly to Moshe, and then hid it away. This midrash calls us to find the inner tachash, the impulse to join in a community project that can unite the entire world camp of Jews.

Another midrash draws on a love-poem from the prophet Yechezkel, in which God says to Israel, “I found you lost and alone in the desert. I dressed you in fine garments, and in sandals made of tachash.”  According to this midrash, the Israelites gave God a spiritual wedding gift of tachash skins, which God fashioned into sandals and gave as gift in return.

Here the tachash is a metaphor for our spiritual motivation. When we become seekers, we offer energy in the direction of the Divine. When our questions are answered in the fullness of experience, it is as if our energy has been reshaped into something fine and useful that gives stability. The raw energy that we offer becomes the tool for walking a spiritual path – both alone in an intimate one-to-one relationship with God, and in community as we create the institutions that anchor us.

***

Building Through Non-Attachment (Terumah 5776/2006)

“God spoke to Moshe saying: Take My offering from everyone whose heart impels them to give: gold, silver, sky-blue wool, dark red wool, dolphin skins, acacia wood, oil, spices, incense,precious stones…” (Shemot/Exodus 25:1-7)

In Parshat Terumah Israelites donate the raw materials for the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the wilderness, the dwelling-place among the people that God has requested.

Here the Israelites practice non-attachment.  On a more literal level, they practice a material and social kind of non-attachment: they forego public recognition of their donations, giving only because they want to give, sharing things most people would only sell.  On a metaphorical level, we could say they practice a personal and spiritual kind of non-attachment.  In order to channel divine energy while wandering through uncharted territories of life, and in order to make it possible for God to dwell within them, the Israelites search their hearts for things that are precious to them but are better if put aside in order to make space for God.

If we are living creative lives, engaged with other lives, there is no time when we will reach the pure, detached self.  The spiritual practice of non-attachment will be lifelong. We should always be asking ourselves what we need to give up in order to allow divinity to shine through us.  Sometimes we will need to give up material things, other times emotional and intellectual attachments.  We may give up things as flashy as gold or as rare as dolphin skins – whatever an informed search of the heart impels us to give.

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