Parashat Terumah

For a biblical tradition that prides itself on literary efficiency, it’s odd that our Torah portion this morning, Terumah, is the first of five parashiyot, the last 5 of the 11 in the book of Shemot/Exodus, that all deal with the architectural details of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary, and its vessels. For most of us who’ve sat through these weeks of readings, once would have been enough.

What are all these repetitions trying to tell us? What’s the significance of these details of the Mishkan, and its later iteration, the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, that they warrant so much repeating ?

Many years ago Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tried to explain by pointing to two possible theories, both of which I’ll describe; one of which I’ll champion and expand as the central metaphor for this very moment in our 4000 year-old Jewish story.

The first theory emerges from the teachings of Ramban/Nachmanides, who understood the Mishkan to be the sacred place for ongoing communications from the Divine voice, the space within which God would continue to speak commandments and instructions to Moshe and B'nai Israel. For that reason, the first vessel our parashah describes is the Aron Ha’Edut, the ark which would later carry the Luchot ha’Brit/tablets of the law. The Torah even says in today’s parashah, 

וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you -- from above the cover, from between the two keruvim that are on top of the Ark -- all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”

Rabbi Riskin pointed out that during  Second Temple period the Great Sanhedrin, the rabbinic authorities of the time, gathered and issued rulings and interpretations from within the precincts of the Temple itself, reinforcing the idea that the purpose of the holy sanctuary was to be a place of ongoing divine revelation.

And by extension, this theory goes, the shul and the Beit Midrash/ the synagogue sanctuary and our classrooms and studyhalls -- the spaces in which we read, study and interpret the Torah and her millenia of commentaries, the spaces in which we channel the Divine voice and summon our understanding of the Divine will -- these spaces are the rightful heirs of the desert Mishkan and the Jerusalem temples.

But, Rabbi Riskin noted, the Hasidim saw it differently. To them and their mystically inspired teachings, the essential purpose of the Mishkan was to be a home for God and the Jewish people, and ultimately all of humanity, to share; a place to which we could all turn for existential shelter and for spiritual intimacy.

Consider how the arrangement of the Mishkan mirrored a home: there was a closet in the form of the Ark, a candelabrum in the form of the menorah, and even a dining room table in the form of the table for the Lechem Hapanim/the ritual showbread. 

And in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple, the ingenious vision of the Rabbis turned our homes into mikdashei me’at/mini-sanctuaries to replace the great communal sanctuary of the Temple. Our wine at Shabbat and yomtov meals mirrors the wine libations that accompanied sacrifices; our handwashing/netilat yadaim mirrors the handwashing of the Kohanim by the Leviyim before performing their Temple duties; our challot mirror the loaves of showbread that were on display, and the salt we sprinkle on them mirror the salt sprinkled on the sacrifices; our blessings over our children echo the Kohanim blessing the people, and our singing around our tables echoes the singing of the Leviyim on the steps of the ancient Beit Hamikdash.  The Jewish home, then, filled as it is with beautiful rituals and traditions that bring family and friends together to honor and rejoice in life, in love, to share Shabbat and holidays, to provide comfort and safety in the face of pain, the home is the rightful heir of the desert Mishkan and the Jerusalem temples. Our homes are our true sanctuaries.

As the late Rabbi Neil Gillman, z”l, often taught: as erudite as our Jewish ideas, teachings, philosophies and theologies may be, what sticks in the minds and hearts of Jewish children and the adults they grow to become, are the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches of Judaism - Judaism lived, consumed, and experienced.

Let me deepen this further.

Just as the Torah is usually kept in an Aron Kodesh, parashat Terumah tell us that in the Mishkan the tablets, the luchot habrit -- both the first set of broken ones and the second set of whole ones -- were kept in a very specially crafted ark that was placed inside the Mishkan in the holiest space, the Kodesh HaKodashim, visited only once a year by the Kohen Gadol/High Priest -- on Yom Kippur. 

But what made the Aron extra special was the combination of materials used in building it:  acacia wood, and gold to cover it.  Why wood and gold?  Wood, coming from a tree, represents growth, development, and the ability to renew, especially following weakness or decline.  Gold, on the other hand, is a precious metal that lies beneath the earth, never tarnishing or aging.  Gold is a reflection of what’s eternal.  For the Torah to be carried with us throughout our journeys – as a people, as families, and as individuals – it has to be enveloped in both the durability of gold, and the adaptability of wood. We have to be strong enough to hold onto the Torah and not let it leave our mouths and hearts, and courageous enough to continuously negotiate what it all means in the ever-changing, broader world in which we, and it, live.

The Mishkan itself conveys the same lesson.  It was known by two terms:  a Mishkan, a dwelling place, suggesting a home for the divine presence to live within our midst and permeate our lives; and an Ohel, a temporary shelter which moved with us along our wilderness trek and was continually set up and taken down as we traveled through the desert.  Like a portable tent that can be made bigger or smaller, round or square as our needs demand, so our sacred spaces, like our homes, are to adjust and adapt to be inclusive of our ever evolving lives as Jews; they must make space for holiness to always dwell within them, and within us.

Think also about the neighborhood of the Mishkan. The holy desert home designed meticulously with its blue, purple and crimson fabrics, its gleaming gold, silver and copper vessels and accents, it’s burnished acacia wood, aromatic incense, rich, spiced oil, lapis lazuli and other glimmering stones -- it was all assembled against the backdrop of the vast desert. The desert -- endless, edgeless stretches of undefined, unstructured beige, bland, sand. The contrast could not be more striking.  

But I think that was precisely the point. The Mishkan, the blueprint for our Jewish homes, could only fulfill its function of bringing holiness, stability and connection into our lives if it had the capacity to be continually reassembled, continually rebuilt, on the very foundation of endless change, represented by the desert itself. 

The Torah teaches us that to live life fully we must always be moving and growing.  To remain in one place is to stagnate and die.  This is why in the Torah the main paradigm is that of the Exodus, the process of moving out of Mitzrayim/Egypt, our meytzarim, our narrow places, into the vast desert plains of becoming, of growth and of possibility.  It is not Sinai that captures the Torah’s heart, despite the sacred exchange that took place there.  Rather, it’s the notion of carrying Sinai with us wherever we travel that animates the Torah’s teachings, and the living Torah of endlessly evolving Jewish life which it inspires.  

The Torah often warns us against worshiping idols.  But idol worship is not simply bowing down to a rock; it’s worshiping anything that is unchanging, unresponsive, or inflexible.  It is not only God who refuses to be limited in this way.  The lesson is that we are not permitted to limit ourselves in this way either.  We cannot turn our own lives into stone.  

Nor can we turn our leaders into idols by asking them to remain unchanged so we can grow only in relation to a fixed point.

When broken down, stone becomes grains of sand, free to be moved and reconfigured by the winds of life, free to assemble into formations that give structure and meaning, until they surrender to the winds of change once again.

The story of Sinai had the people standing at the foot of the mountain, a rock, for only a number of months.  But they wandered and camped over the course of forty years in the desert with sand under their feet, with the constantly shifting ground under their soles, seeking holiness from the dynamism and instability that is life. Just like we spend just minutes in front of the ark each year and most of our time trudging through the dunes of Mondays, commutes, and shul meetings, seeking something of the sacred along the trail of living.

We are at an historic moment in the American Jewish story when we are trying to figure out how to sustain and grow Jewish life within the dizzying array of choices and opportunities today’s world presents to us. 

We, and especially our children, live in the vast marketplace not just of ideas, but the marketplace of identities wherein fluidity, diversity and hybridity inform life now shaped by consent -- no longer only by descent; by choice -- no longer only by heritage.  

And today, more of Jewish experience is being sought and created outside the walls of Jewish legacy institutions like synagogues and instead is being designed in more intimate spaces like the home, around dining room tables and backyard bbqs, on hiking trails, in art galleries, cafes, retreat centers, and on travel adventures around the world.

It’s a time of great challenge, and immense opportunity. Far from being a hand-wringer, I’m a hand-clapper as I celebrate living in one of the most Jewishly creative and innovative eras during which I’ve spent 30 years as a rabbinic entrepreneur, designing and leading communities that have offered diverse spaces for Jewish engagement and alternative models of membership and belonging.

Building pluralistic, intimate, personal, meaning-filled, empowering and transformative Jewish settings for all Jews, and for those of other backgrounds with whom we may share our Jewish lives, we’re constructing modern mishkans for Judaism to be experienced and embraced within the many and varied spaces Jews today call home and in which they seek stability and continuity in a world of constant and rapid change; new settings for Jewish engagement that complement to those that have historically, and will continue to, serve as Jewish gathering spaces such as the synagogue.

Gold and Wood.  Eternal beauty and vital dynamism. Rooted spirituality and fluid landscapes. Mishkan and Ohel.  Dwelling place and tent. Embracing and Expansive. These are the watchwords with which we’re writing the next chapter of the American Jewish story. 

Today’s building project is not just about Jewish creativity and innovation. It’s about Jewish responsibility. It’s not about despair over the Jewish future; it’s about trust, confidence, joy and hope in our Jewish destiny.

If this sounds like a very contemporary drashah, allow me to close with a beautiful text that roots these ideas in a gorgeous and courageous teaching on our parshah by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th century Polish Hasidic leader, revered among Eastern European Hasidim, and known for his fiery, passionate Jewish soul.

He brings a verse from our portion:

כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כׇּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Like all that I show you—the structure of the Tabernacle and the structure of all its vessels—and thus shall you do (Ex. 25:9).

Rashi comments on “and thus shall you do”/ וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ—for all generations. Every generation was responsible for building and maintaining the Mishkan/Beit Hamikdash exactly as described in the Torah.

But later commentators object and point out that the later Temples like Solomon’s did not resemble this one that Moses built! How can that be?

The Kedushat Levi explained: “Really, the structure of the Tabernacle and all its vessels that had to be of a certain height, weight, and form, were all ways of garbing or giving form to some holy spiritual entity. This followed the prophetic vision that Moses had on Mount Sinai, along with all of Israel.

But we also know the Talmudic statement that “no two prophets prophesy in the same style” (b. Sanhedrin 89a). Each does so in their own categories…

This means that Moses and the generation of the wilderness, following the qualities of worship and prophecy they attained at Sinai, had to construct this particular form of Tabernacle, structuring its vessels in just this way so that they would properly garb the spiritual lights of holiness. This is what Scripture means when it says: Like all that I show you/כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔—according to your framework of prophecy, so should the Tabernacle and vessels be.

Then scripture adds: and thus shall you do/וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ—for all generations. This means that in every generation, when you want to build the Temple, the structure should be in accord with the prophecy that is then attained at that time. That should determine the form of Temple and vessels. Solomon did it according to his own worship and his prophetic spirit. The form he made followed that which he attained.

Thus [any] objection can really be dismissed. Of course [Solomon’s] altar was different! That was the commandment—that they NOT do it always in one particular form, but in accord with the flow of prophecy that takes place then. That should determine the form of the earthly vessels.”

And there you have it. Our generation’s efforts to build new and creative spaces and platforms for contemporary Jewish life is an expression of the biblical commandment for each generation to bring form and function to the unique spiritual energies and sensibilities of that generation. 

So let’s grab our treasure of Jewish tools – our values, our texts, our courage, our imagination, our commitment, our comfort with change – and let’s keep building our mishkans for today. Grounded and dynamic. Traditional and bold. Continuous and transformative. Laden with gold and wood.

Shabbat Shalom.