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Parshat Terumah 2019
“Take me a donation” is how our parsha of Terumah (which means donation or contribution) begins. That is a very strange way of putting things. It should be “give” me a donation or “bring” me a donation, but no, the word is v’yikchu – take me a donation. Moreover, the word terumah, contribution, comes from the root to elevate, to make higher. Perhaps this will help us to figure out the reason behind the “take” instead of “give.” Rabbi Reuven Greenvald cites Avraham Ibn Ezra, who explained that in order to give something away we have to take it from ourselves. In other words, true gift-giving is about giving something up. And by the bye, this giving of ourselves raises us to a higher level.
Before we leave this give and take conundrum, here’s an old Yiddish tale about it, cited by Rabbi Jordan Cohen:
“Yankel the Cheapskate” would not give money to anyone, for any reason, no matter how important the cause. One day, Yankel was crossing a river in a small boat. Suddenly, a huge storm broke out, and his boat capsized. Luckily, another boat approached. The sailor called out to him: “Give me your hand. Give me your hand.” Yankel could barely hear him over the strong winds and the roaring waves. He heard only one word, over and over: “Give, Give…” And Yankel couldn’t help himself. He yelled back: “No. I don’t give. I don’t give.” Again: “Yankel, give me your hand! Give me your hand.” And again Yankel screamed: “Never. I don’t give.” Finally, in desperation, the rescuer yelled: “Yankel, take my hand.” And Yankel said: “Oh, take? Sure.”
Once we understand why we take rather than give, we have to ask why this commandment, in fact, why most of the next 5 parshot which deal with the Mishkan, the tabernacle? Why now, after the big shebang at Mount Sinai and the 53 mitzvot in Mishpatim? Why suddenly turn off the mitzvah tap and turn on the construction valve?
One very simple answer, given by Rabbi Ari Kahn, is that it was necessary. The Israelites were about to receive the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed by God himself. Where were they supposed to store them?
That’s the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, which comes from the root shachan, which means to reside. Another word from the same root is shachen – neighbor, he who resides near you. And the most powerful word from this root is Shechina, the Divine Spirit that was to rest in the Mishkan.
But that was only the immediate function of the mishkan. Nachmanides, the Ramban, felt that the mishkan had a much deeper and more important function. It was to allow the Israelites to relive the most exalted moment in their history, the revelation on Mount Sinai.
In the story of Mount Sinai we read that the glory of God rested on Mount Sinai, and when we get to the completion of the Mishkan we will read that the glory of God filled the Tabernacle. This was the place where God could continue to speak to them. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were the material reminders of the one-time event that changed a rabble into a people.
Just as we relive the story of the Exodus at the Seder night each year, where the matza, the maror, the shankbone and the various other foods and ceremonies serve as stimuli to jumpstart our memories of what happened in Egypt, the various vessels and ceremonies of the Mishkan and then the Temple, were to remind us of the holy event of Sinai and to rekindle the spirit of that time in us again and again. This is an abstraction of the original idea with potent auxiliary audio-visual aids.
With the destruction of the Temples, one and two, the process became even more abstract and the Beit Knesset, the synagogue, became the reminder of the reminder. We don’t bring sacrifices, we bring prayers which in part recall the sacrifices and in part become our new sacrifice. We don’t have kohanim to do the work anymore – we have a rav and shaliach tzibur, leaders who conduct the services and show us where we are going and what to do.
We have the bima, which while not really an altar, is the place where these leaders offer up prayers, an abstracted set of sacrifices. And of course we have the aron kodesh, the holy ark where we keep the Torah scrolls, which are the most tangible reminder of our past.
We don’t always pay attention to what is going on. Our attention wanders and most of us are easily distracted. For some the words are just that – words, which even if we understand them are levels away from the real thing.
But it’s all necessary. Just as the mitzvoth we read last week in Mishpatim give us the means of implementing the most important elements of our faith – mutual responsibility, honesty in our dealings, proper treatment of each and every person regardless of gender, age, race, economic status or ethnic origin etc. – the Mishkan, and its replacements today give us the means we need to recall the spiritual uplift that we had and that would most likely fade without reminders.
So, while the attention to detail may seem a bit obsessive, in its day it served an important purpose, a purpose that every so often is still realized in our present day rituals in our mishkan, the beit Knesset.