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Parshat Terumah 2018
The book of Shmot began with action. Infants floating down the Nile, a murder here, miraculous signs there, plagues, the Reed Sea parting and then drowning the Egyptians, manna, pheasants, water from rocks, and finally, the greatest spectacle of all, God’s sound and light show on Mount Sinai. Where can you go from there?
Last week we saw where. We went into the nitty-gritty details of everyday living according to the laws of the Torah. But today we return to a more spiritual undertaking, a subject that forms the bulk of the final five parshot of the book of Shmot. The building of the mishkan.
When you think about it, who is this mishkan for? God? That divine being about whom King Solomon said – the earth and the heavens cannot hold Him, so how can a building do so? Even more so a portable affair. He doesn’t need an abode. And if he needed one, it wouldn’t be a gold and silver plated wood construction. No. the mishkan, like the mitzvoth, is for us, the people.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs puts a psychological twist on it, saying that something we build with our own hands (like Ikea furniture, l’havdil) has much more value to us than something given to us, even if it is given by God. Until now, the Israelite-God relationship was one of give and take. God gave and the people took. Here, for the first time, the people are asked to give of themselves to build the mishkan. And they respond, with enthusiasm!
But Dr. Brachi Elizur puts another spin on the reason for the mishkan. She says that from the beginning of the story, from when Moshe was first recruited for this thankless task, he did not believe the people would follow him. They wouldn’t believe his words. Because of their servitude and depression, they believed only in what they could see, what was tangible. Therefore, Dr. Elitzur says, Moshe insisted on visible signs and actions that would impress the people.
And above them all was one symbol that embodied all of these actions: what happened in Egypt, at the Reed Sea, in the desert. Whenever something went wrong there was Moshe to put it right, and in his hand was – his staff. That ubiquitous symbol. Wherever he went, whatever miracle he performed, it was with the staff. (The people probably developed a Pavlovian response to it. Every time Moshe raised his staff the people said, Uh oh, here comes another miracle.)
This pattern changed, says Dr. Elizur, at Mount Sinai. Here all the visuals a person could possible want were put on display, in fact, to the point of overload. This was when the people said Enough! Moshe. You do the TALKING – not the action – and we will listen.
So we read Mishpatim last week. Lots of talk about things to do. 53 of them, if you remember. But now something else was needed because there was the danger that the great event at Sinai would become a dim memory that eventually evaporated. Something like what is happening to memories of the Holocaust, in the rest of the world.
This was the function of the Mishkan. At Mount Sinai we read that God’s spirit rested on the mountain. Here the people are being told to build a tabernacle, a mishkan, in which God’s spirit, the one we saw at Sinai, could rest. It goes with us. It is a constant reminder.
In other words, the people were taking a visual yet material reminder of the Sinai experience with them as they tramped through the desert. God’s spirit was to be signified by that portable edifice.
There’s an ongoing debate among commentators about the order of things in the Torah. Especially here. By all indications, Yitro visited after the revelation at Sinai, yet the story appears before. Some commentators say that the Mishkan was built after the sin of the golden calf because the people needed something material in order to envision the God they couldn’t see. That’s why they had demanded an image, like the calf.
So, we have a possible confusion of the time line but it doesn’t really matter which came earlier or later.
We can see another purpose in the Mishkan, connected to God’s presence in the people. By putting God into the people, we are lifting the importance of the people. In fact, the word terumah, coming from ram, meaning high, indicates that by giving this contribution we are actually lifting ourselves. We are putting ourselves on a higher plane.
This fits in nicely with the message from last week’s parsha, about giving to those who need our help and protection. Here, we see that giving is a two-way street, that by giving to others we are actually raising ourselves.
Of course we are not talking about the type of giving that makes headline news between high level politicians and moguls. There the giving is two-way but not for the good of the people, only for a few entitled individuals. The mishkan was intended to raise the level of the people’s awareness of the importance of their lives, both because God dwelled among them and because they were giving of themselves. The results of this placement of the mishkan, as they appear in the remaining books of the Torah, are far from unequivocal. So just imagine what would have happened if the mishkan had not been with the people.