Terumah: Preparing For a Mishkan, What and Why

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Terumah opens with Gd’s call to the Jewish people to gather materials for a Mishkan, a “home” for Gd’s Presence. Moshe is told to take collections from the people, of money and materials, and how to put those together, yielding the structure.

What Was Collected Voluntarily

The Torah speaks of those materials as coming from everyone asher yidvenu libo, 25;1, whose heart moves him/her to generosity. Rashi takes it to mean the people will donate of their own good will, yet in the next comment points out two of the three donations were mandatory and a specific amount, a half-shekel, and only beyond that was there room for individual choices about what and how much to donate. Yet the Torah treats the donations as if they were all voluntary, a function of the people’s excitement.

For a project made up of hard-to-get materials. Onkelos starts us off with his version of orot tehashim, the hides of tehashim for the outer coverings of the Mishkan, 25;5. He writes sasgona, a word Shabbat 28a and Radak treat as a way to say multicolored, leaving the animal’s identity unknown. Rashi thought the animal existed only in that generation, and Maharil Diskin (quoted by ArtScroll) thought the Gemara did not know the animal the word sasgona meant.

Not the only mystery regarding the Mishkan. The same verse refers to shittim (acacia) wood, which does not grow in the desert. Wondering where the Jews procured it, Rashi twice (this verse and 26;15, where he notes the idea appears in piyyut, a liturgical poem) assumes Ya’akov brought such trees to Egypt, planted them, and left word for the Jews to take the wood with them when they left.

Two of the essential materials of the Mishkan had to be brought about in an unusual way, one coming from Gd, the other from the people, perhaps a reminder this structure will depend on the natural and the supernatural, as well as on the human and Divine.

A Whole Yielding Parts, Parts Producing a Whole

The Menorah was not easy to construct, either. Onkelos showed us some blurring around the nature of its kaftorim, 25;31. Although the word usually means knobs, he wrote hezureha, its apples.  ArtScroll cites Marpei Lashon, who said the word hezureha means to return to itself, because round items return to where they started. It doesn’t quite explain why Onkelos didn’t use a more specific word.

Like the tahash according to Rashi, the Menorah was also produced by Gd, because Moshe could not figure out how to do it. Rashi says Gd eventually told Moshe to throw the gold in the fire and the Menorah would come out on its own. Moshe struggled with it because it (as well as the covering of the Ark, the kapporet, with the two keruvim, cherubs, extending up from it) was made from one piece of metal hammered into shape, rather than soldering together various parts.

It seems to me to signal the value of diversity within overall unity, how a single nation could accommodate many parts. In reverse, Rashi twice points out the threads of the sewn or woven materials had twenty-four component parts (six threads of four types each), a model of how many elements can join together into a whole.

The unity of the Jewish people, it seems to me Rashi is suggesting, includes belonging to a larger whole while retaining their identity as well as finding ways to band together to produce that whole, from within their identities.

Covering and Elevating the Mishkan

One of the parts of the Mishkan those threads made were the yeriot, the ten panels sewn together by fives and then the two units hooked or clasped together. In each case, the Torah says isha el ahota, literally “a woman to her sister.” For the group of five being sewn onto each other, however, Onkelos writes hada im hada, one with the other, where he speaks of the clasping as hada lakovel hada, one opposite the other.

Sewing binds the panels more fully than does clasping, a distinction Onkelos inserts where the verse left it unclear.

He also clarifies the role of the shemen ha-mishha, most literally the oil of anointing (or smearing). He chooses to call it mishha de-revuta, elevation oil, reminding us the action we do with it matters less than the function it serves.

What It’s All For

The details of the construction matter, but we don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. In a series of comments, Ramban advances an important thesis: the Mishkan housed the Aron, which contained the luhot, the Tablets on which Gd had engraved the Aseret Ha-Dibberot. Those Dibberot were the content of the Revelation at Sinai.

For Ramban, the Mishkan was meant to ensconce more permanently among the people the Presence they had experienced at Sinai, where Gd spoke to all of them panim el panim, face to face, in the way usually reserved for Moshe. The Aseret Ha-Dibberot were the content of the revelation because they are avot of all mitzvot, category headings from which the rest can be derived.

Their commitment to observe those laws, to obey Moshe’s presentation of those laws, made them worthy of Gd’s permanent Presence. The Presence was supposed to be very near and close to the Jewish people, leaving no question Gd was with them at all times.

Ramban thinks they had to further earn the Presence by participating in the building of the Mishkan, either physically, or intending that it happen, because Ramban thinks what community members support and applaud also counts as participation. It’s a reminder of the importance of standing up for what we approve, and against what we do not, because our declared attitudes are like actions in favor or opposition of events.

Gd will reside His Presence among the people because they will participate in building a structure to house the luhot, the Tablets engraved with the core messages Gd chose to reveal publicly at Sinai.

The details of construction that fill the parsha (and a few more) matter, because those details lead to a Mishkan, a place of closer connection to Gd than any other nation has, the kind of connection we long for again, speedily in our days.

About Gidon Rothstein

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