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Torah Sparks

Parashat Terumah
February 21, 2015 – 2 Adar 5775

Annual (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19): Etz Hayim p. 485; Hertz p. 326
Triennial (Exodus 26:1 – 26:30: Etz Hayim p. 491; Hertz p. 330
Haftarah (I Kings 5:26 – 6:13): Etz Hayim p. 500; Hertz p. 336

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

The concept of the Tabernacle, the portable shrine, is introduced as a place for God to dwell among the Israelites. The people are asked to bring fine materials for the sanctuary.

The Mishkan is to include an ark topped with a golden slab attended by two golden cherubs; a table; a candelabrum (menorah); a layered roof; curtains; an altar; and an enclosure. The dimensions and descriptions of all of these items are explained in fine detail.

Theme #1: Where’s IKEA When You Need It?

As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them. (Exodus 26:1)

In spite of the many details of the Tabernacle set forth in this portion, they do not describe everything that builders -- ancient or modern -- need to know.

No one has ever figured out how the Tabernacle is put together. The components are given here, but the text does not say how they are put together. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

It is only too obvious that much of this description is merely an idealization: the desert sanctuary is conceived as a collapsible temple, exactly half as big as the Temple of Jerusalem, which served as the model for this reconstruction. However, not everything in the description is made up, and the notion of a “prefabricated” sanctuary clashes with the idea -- so firmly rooted in tradition that the authors of this description could not wholly remove it -- that the dwelling was a Tent. -- Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

As Rabbi Saul Berman suggests, one likely reason for the great detail is to deter future priests from claiming divine sanction to solicit ever-increasing devotions from the people to further beautify God’s Tabernacle. By specifying precisely, in a document available to everyone, what God wants inside the Tabernacle, the Torah helps to forestall the possibility of future corruption. -- Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy

Questions for Discussion:

Friedman notes that the reader is not clear about the process of constructing the Mishkan. How might have the Israelites figured out how to put the items of the Mishkan together? Is it possible God gave the instructions orally - or, even with all the detail provided in the text, left the Israelites on their own for the construction details? Can this process be compared to our efforts to build communities in partnership with God today?

De Vaux explains how it is uncertain whether the Mishkan is more of a tent or a “mini-Temple.” How are these two concepts similar to one another? How are they different? Do both ideas symbolize contrasting aspects of our relationship with God? Is it helpful for us to greet God sometimes formally and sometimes less formally?

Rabbi Saul Berman theorizes that the more detail the text offers, the less likely it is for future priests to take too much control over the Mishkan, even if their intentions are good. When do well-meaning people nevertheless go too far? Is this a common enough human tendency that our tradition should be vigilant to avoid it?

Theme #2: They Wood if They Could

You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright. (Exodus 26:15)

To the followers of God, the directions for building God's house is fraught with symbolism.Cedarwood, which is very hard, symbolizes firmness and toughness (“man should always be tender as a reed and not hard as a cedar”). The character trait of hardness should not exist in the world at all except for use for those holy purposes symbolized by the Tabernacle and the Temple. In such matters firmness and inflexibility are imperative, because these qualities will guard us against the influence of scoffers and keep us from being lured away from the path of Judaism by instigators and seducers. -- Avnei Ezel

The Hebrew word KeReSH (“board”) spells SHeKeR (“falsehood”) in reverse. In other words, if you succeed in “reversing” falsehood you will achieve the highest level of holiness -- you will be worthy of becoming a part of the Sanctuary. -- Noam Elimelekh

The fact that there are to be twenty frames on each side and six plus two corner frames at the rear of the structure indicates its overall rectangular shape. Yet, because the thickness of the frames and the way they are to be fitted together remains obscure, the overall dimensions of the structure remain approximate. For two millennia, many have tried, with little unanimity, to ascertain its size and shape. -- Carol Meyers, Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Avnei Ezel believes that the firmness of the cedar wood symbolizes the firmness with which we should treat all matters of holiness. Are there other purposes for which firmness must be applied? Are all such purposes “holy” by definition?

Noam Elimelekh illuminates a way to interpret the details of the Mishkan materials as revealing of greater truths. How can synagogue architecture reveal greater truths? How can the design of non-religious buildings convey important ideas? Must a synagogue have physical symbolism, or can a simple room of prayer be just as effective when we create a spiritual environment?

Meyers reminds us how difficult it is for modern scholars to re-create the frames of the Mishkan. Re-creations of physical space can imitate but never duplicate the original. What is the value in trying to re-create physical space? Is there value in trying to re-create a particular feeling or important moment in our lives? How must we cope if and when such re-creations come up short?

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