Author's Note on Parshat Terumah

Parshat Terumah

Shabbat Talk Given at Chabad Shul of Potomac, Maryland
Date: March 4, 2017
6 Adar 5777

My father and my father-in-law had something interesting in common. When it came to putting things together, they both disliked instructions.  My father would call them “obstructions” — they got in the way and were difficult to understand. My father-in-law ignored them.  If he had to put something together, he would dump out the parts and look at a picture of what the thing should look like. Then, he would just put it together. At the end of the process, there were always a couple parts left over and we would ask him what they were for. We were concerned because they might actually be important. He would patiently explain how the manufacturers always throw in a few extra parts and you don’t really need them. How he knew which ones were extra, I’ll never know. But whatever he constructed seemed to last and serve its intended purpose.

These memories came back to me as I studied Parshat Terumah.  All the parts and furnishings were laid out in front of Moshe, Betzalel, and the builders and architects of the Mishkan (the portable tabernacle).  The Torah provided them with the blueprints and all the instructions.

But in many ways, the instructions got in the way; they seemed to be either confusing or unintelligible. In fact, four times in Parshat Terumah, the Torah tells us that G-d had to show Moshe how various aspects of the Mishkan and its furnishings were to be built. Look at the picture, G-d said as it were, and figure out how to put it together. 

For example, at one point, Moshe could not figure out how to make the Menorah — the instructions were obstructions. So G-d showed him what it looked like.  Moshe threw the gold into the fire and out came a Menorah; G-d said “Look at this model and build it (the Menorah) like this.” 

Another unusual thing about the instructions in Parshat Terumah is that they explain how to construct something that was never to be permanently used; it was a travelling Mishkan and not a permanent facility.  It seems like a waste of space in the Torah to spend so much time on instructions for a temporary Mishkan; particularly when you consider that many of the same details of the Mishkan are provided in several other places in the Torah. Why provide so much instruction about something that has no relevance to our daily lives and was never intended to be a permanent dwelling? Couldn’t we benefit from more specific instruction on other things that are more relevant like Kashrut, Tefillin, or Shabbat and Yom Tov observance?

Is this Torah portion really intended to be a series of obstructionist instructions on how to insert slat B into opening A or weave fabrics in certain combinations and colors to enhance an experience that we will never have?

In truth, as one might expect, there is much more going on in this week’s Parsha.

To start, we can see an allusion to deeper significance by looking at the name of the Parsha itself — Terumah.  The word Terumah has its source in the concept of separating or raising something up. These instructions are not just basic construction plans; in many respects they are plans with a deeper purpose — to raise us up and teach us something more practical and meaningful for our lives. 

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out in a talk he gave in 1986, Terumah is comprised of the letters “Torah” (Taf, Vav, Reish, and Hey) plus the letter Mem. Recognizing that the letter Mem also represents the number 40, perhaps this portion refers to our Torah or our instruction guide for life which was given in 40 days to another “Mem” – Moshe. Indeed, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:4) states that the Torah is called Moshe’s Torah. This is an appropriate allusion on this particular Shabbat because it is the 6th of Adar; the day that precedes Moshe’s birthday and anniversary of his death which both happened on the 7th of Adar (Megilla 13b).

To find the deeper meaning in Terumah (or Moshe’s Torah), here a few examples of what the instructions in this week’s portion could mean for us.

Go back to my first question – why does the Torah spend so much time on instructions for a dwelling that was inherently temporary?  Perhaps an answer can be found when we consider that this world is our temporary home.  The Torah is permanent and the instructions about a temporary dwelling are really instructions to us as to how to deal with our temporary existence. The emphasis on details is a reminder for us that, by learning and following the Torah’s detailed instructions, we can find permanent meaning out of building our temporary dwelling.

Next, consider that the instructions were to help us build a Mikdash – a holy temple or dwelling place for G-d. The Torah says “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” – G-d said “Make for me a Mikdash (singular) and I will dwell in them (plural).” 

As many commentators point out, the unusual combination of singular and plural tenses in this verse teaches that each of us must make our lives into our own Mikdash and, when we do, G-d will dwell with each and every one of us. The details surrounding the construction of the Mikdash are similar to the details involved when we build our own homes.  Imagine all the keilim (or vessels) we need when we build our homes – the furniture, artwork, linens, etc.  How will we build our home? How will we finance it?  The details we have to deal with are innumerable.  But what type of house will we live in? The challenge for us is how to make those details into a house that can become a holy Mikdash; a place where G-d could actually dwell.

We are also taught that v’shachanti b’tocham (I will dwell in them) alludes to each of us as individuals.  We should make ourselves into a Mikdash by becoming appropriate holy “dwelling places” for G-d and then G-d will dwell inside each of us.  Perhaps this is a lesson to draw from the Ark as a holy receptacle.

The Ark was intended to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments (plus the first set of broken tablets). Rashi explains that the Ark was actually a collection of three separate boxes.  There was a wooden container which was placed inside a larger golden ark and then a smaller golden ark was put inside the wooden one. Through this process, the wooden ark was completely covered in gold. When we build a Mikdash for ourselves, we have to surround ourselves inside and out with precious gold if we really want to shine. As one saying goes “We don’t have a soul; we are a soul and we have a body.” By building our bodies as the proper receptacles for our souls (through observing the mitzvot in our thought, speech, and deed), we will allow them both to shine.

This raises another question. If dwelling in “them” really means that G‑d will dwell within each of us, why did we need a literal Mikdash altogether? In fact, the concept of a Mikdash as a place for G-d is somewhat troubling. Is G-d in the Mikdash? Does that mean He is not anywhere else?  As King Solomon famously asked in reference to his Temple: 

 הנה השמים ושמי השמים לא יכלכלוך אף כי הבית הזה אשר בניתי

“Behold heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house/Temple that I have built?” (I Kings 8:27) 

G-d is either everywhere or nowhere and if G-d is everywhere, what does it mean to say we need a Mikdash (a travelling tabernacle) to contain Him as a place to connect? Can we not pray to G-d anywhere?

Of course, G-d as an infinite being cannot be contained within a physically confined space. But we are finite beings and we can only relate to the infinite in the context of the limitations of our own existence. In truth, if I take the view that I can worship at any time or in any place or in any way, then it is likely that I will worship G-d at no time and in no place and in no way.  The purpose of our structures (structures in time and in place) is to help us respond to those forces that would pull us away from our higher purpose and mission.

That said, where are you in this equation? Torah commentary typically focuses on where G-d can be found – v’shachanti b’tocham – G-d will dwell in them.  But where are you dwelling? What is your purpose? Why are you here in the first place? Sometimes we see people who treat life as a game where the one with the most stuff at the end “wins.” Are we here to accumulate things?  Or are we here to take those things we accumulate and actually use them to build a holy place? The Mishkan was, inherently, a temporary building – it was by its nature to be used during our wandering in the desert and not as our permanent home. Yet, if we build it and build it properly, G-d will dwell there as a permanent presence.

Perhaps the Torah is offering us a choice. If we are here to accumulate the most things, we are as temporary as the Mishkan.  But if we accumulate the things with which we can build a home for G-d, v’shachanti bitocham, G‑d will dwell within us and we are able to elevate the temporary to the permanent.

Admittedly, using all of the things in our lives for a holy purpose at all times is hard. We live in a contemporary secular world and it is not easy to keep Shabbat and the Jewish holy days as well as other Mitzvot.  I am a lawyer and work in a highly competitive environment. To be successful, I have to provide my clients with cost-effective and readily available service. I work in a 24/7 world but I live a 24/6 existence. Our clients expect that, from time to time, we may doze; but we can never close.  When my largest client demands my presence on Yom Kippur perhaps I can easily explain my absence. But when it is the second day of Shavuot, the explanation becomes much more difficult.  What does Parshat Terumah have to say about carrying that burden?

The Torah describes every length, width and height of the many beams and other parts of the Mishkan. We also know the colors and materials used in various coverings and curtains. With all the specifications, there is one aspect that is not discussed at all – the weight of this material. The Mishkan generally and the Ark in particular were portable, meaning that someone (or some group) had to carry it all through the many wanderings of our people. Some who have analyzed the dimensions and materials involved in the construction of the Ark and the Mishkan (the gold and other metals, the wood, the fabrics, etc.) have estimated that there must have been thousands of pounds of material. Given that it was physically demanding if not impossible to transport the holy objects for normal humans, you would have thought that the Torah would have explained more about how heavy it all was.

Admittedly, the Talmud (at Shabbat 92a) explains that the poles for the Mizbeach (the Altar) were inserted in four rings attached to the Altar. The rings were attached to the upper edge of the Altar so that the distribution of weight for any burden carried by the poles was one-third above the poles and two-thirds below the poles. This tells us that the Mizbeach poles were constructed and attached in a way that could more easily handle the weight; but how heavy was the Mizbeach?  There is nothing in the text that tells us how much it all weighed. Why not?

The Talmud tells us (Sotah 35a) that “the Ark bore its bearers and passed.” One of the examples given to illustrate this principle is of the bearers of the Ark who had to cross a stream. The Talmud explains that the Ark carried them across. It might have looked like the four men were carrying the Ark; but in fact the Ark carried them.

Similarly, the Ark had rods that were permanently fixed, even when it was at rest.  Why didn’t the Torah require removable rods for the Ark just as it did for the Altar?  The common interpretation is that permanent rods made it easy to make sure it could be moved at a moment’s notice.  We can gain another insight when we consider that with removable rods, you attach them when you are ready to carry it.  When the time comes, though, perhaps you will hesitate to grab the rods for fear that you are not strong enough to carry the Ark. Permanent rods are more consistent with understanding that the Ark is ready at any time to carry you; don’t worry about it – the Ark is ready to go. 

We see a similar lesson in Terumah Chapter 26, v. 30 where G-d told Moshe to erect the Mishkan “as I showed you on the Mountain” or, based on Rashi’s interpretation “as you will have been shown on the Mountain.” By using this future pluperfect tense, G-d was telling Moshe today that He would show Moshe in the future how the Mishkan would be erected. G-d was trying to allay Moshe’s concerns about how the Mishkan would be erected. In the future, Moshe would be shown how he will be the one to erect the Mishkan so he need not be afraid today that it is too heavy. And at that future date, the Torah tells us that the Mishkan “Hukam”/was erected.  It does not say Moshe erected it; rather Moshe was there and the Mishkan “was erected.”

These examples teach why the weight of the Mishkan and its furnishings is not mentioned – the Torah is teaching us how to manage our burdens and, more importantly, our worries about how heavy those burdens are. If you worry about the size and “weight” of our Jewish burdens (like Kashrut, Shabbat, Tefillin or the second day of Shavuot, among many others), there seems to be no way we can carry them. They are just too heavy and demanding.

Terumah teaches us that when it comes to Torah and Mitzvot, we cannot worry about how heavy it all is or how difficult it is to carry.  Worrying about the difficulty stems from a belief that the Torah and Mitzvot, just like the Ark, can only be sustained through our strength and power. So if we don’t think we are strong enough, we won’t pick up the poles – it is all just too heavy and we cannot possibly carry it all.

Yes, the Torah has a lot of instructions; but they are not obstructions.  Nor are they superfluous; each one is needed. If we focus on learning about G-d’s instructions and following them step by step, one at a time, as we put the pieces of our lives together, the weight is irrelevant – what we build will carry us if we are building a permanent place in which G-d can dwell.

The story is told of the drowning man who finds a floating tree trunk to hold on to. We look at the situation and say that because the man is holding on to the tree, his life is saved. Another way to look at it is that the tree is supporting him and will save his life if he just holds on. As we read in Proverbs (3:18): עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה  “The Torah is the tree of life to all who uphold it.” The Torah will carry us if we just hold on to it.