Parshah Terumah

Drash by Marc Flitter

To place Parshah Terumah in context, Moses has ascended to the mount. He is to be there 40 days and 40 nights. And God commands, “They shall make me a sanctuary so that I might dwell among them.” There is no ambiguity in that verse. Instead it is a divine rationale for the nation… “This is why we shall contribute to and build, according to specific instructions, a tabernacle, the Mishkan.” And with equal clarity in it shall be placed a table, a menorah, and an arc, guarded by fashioned Cherubin, where in the tablets of testimony will be stored and above which God shall speak further with Moses.

By Ruk7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15125748

Received on Mount Sinai, that God would dwell among them, posed no apparent contradiction. Why wouldn’t God reside among Israel, his chosen nation? Today, a Torah and Talmud later, a history of a people blessed and exiled, persecuted but enduring, a minority census in the religions of the world, “favored nation status” carries a different concept of the presence of God among us. For we have inherited from time, memory, record and tradition, a refinement, the concept of the Schechina as God’s presence among us.

We have come to accept that the spatial confinement of the creator of all things was never literally available to us. So how do we each year consider Parshah Terumah as it conveys the specific instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, beyond its moment in time in order to better appreciate the concept of the divine presence which is accessible to us today? Not surprisingly, as promised by the sages, delving further into the Torah provides a possible answer.

We need not look far. In fact at the conclusion of Parshah Yisro, Shemot Chapter 20 verse 21, after the Revelation was experienced by the entire nation, the Ten Commandments uttered, and Moses had received yet another admonition regarding idolatry, a further instruction was received. “An altar of earth shall you make for me, and you shall slaughter near it your elevation offerings and your peace offerings, your flock and your herd… wherever I permit my name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” To paraphrase Cynthia Ozick’s characterization of Ruth’s reply to Naomi, “Where you go I will go, your people are my people,” what an incandescent proclamation! I would share that as a succinct distillation of the whole of Torah I find it more resonant than that attributed in the Talmud to Hillel, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Ethical humanism, unlike Judaism, does not for me advance the concept of the presence of God.

But the phrase “Wherever I permit my name to be mentioned “ connotes that there must be limitations to man’s behavior. The mentioning of God’s name is implied and accomplished with the performance of all of Halacha. And to utter the Name, for anything less than to serve God’s holiness, is deserving of no less than a commanded prohibition. Finally, what greater blessing can be received than to experience the presence of the Schechina? Returning to the parshah, we encounter the details of how the Tabernacle was to be constructed , prescribing for the new nation a practical path forward from the idolatrous practices of its rivals. In the parshah’s first verse, we read,“ From every man whose heart motivates him you shall take my portion.” Moses was not being instructed to impose a tax nor introduce a tithe. Instead the basic building materials to be utilized for the construction of the tabernacle were to be donated. This was not a call for a building fund. There were to be no promised plaques acknowledging major contributors. Instead the call went out for gold, silver and copper, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, linen and goat hair, red dyed ram and takish skins, acacia wood, oil, incense, and stones. It was a directive intended for each individual motivated by their heart. This was not a “NASA we have a problem,” moment of desperation requiring the cannibalization of Apollo 13 in order to save the crew.

Instead we understand it now as prelude to “service of the heart,” how rabbinic Judaism refers to worship in the absence of the Tabernacle and the subsequent Temples in Jerusalem. Let us consider how these donations of the specific materials slated to be transformed into a dwelling place for God might have affected the same people who witnessed the Revelation at Sinai. We have no similar opportunity available to us today. Writing a check or entering a credit card number, while laudable when executed for tzedakah, conveys only a monetary sum, and I have no personal experience in what an attempted transfer of Bitcoin might provide a donor (aside of recognition of donated food items on a collection table throughout the High Holidays). But then amidst the tumult of the Exodus, the fear and awe inspired by their witness, some might have sought and been rewarded for a moment of recognition for what once might have been theirs, now transformed into a Tabernacle like no other.

What if some of the gold that glittered had been theirs? Would seeing the textured fabric bring back memories of touch? And what of the Acacia wood, indispensable to the erected structure, previously functioning only in the mundane. It is true we can only speculate about the people’s possible reward, but in doing so, even now, we might capture ,if only in the barest sense, the fulfillment of their donations, their portions, every man and woman answering the call of Moses as instructed by God.

As for where the Schechina resides in our time, I would offer that the 19th psalm addresses this contemplation. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” introduces the psalm, continuing,“the firmament tells of his handiwork.” It is an opening verse which calls us not to visual exaltation but instead directs us to narrative, to “the tale of his handiwork.” Commentary explains the following verse, “Day unto day utters speech and night unto night declares knowledge,” as speech and knowledge discerned by the soul of man. The psalm continues ,”The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul.” Our Torah, that “provides wisdom, gladdens the heart, enlightens our eyes, is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey,” allowing us in an age absent the Tabernacle and the Temples, to bask in the presence of the Schechina.

Shabbat Shalom

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