Choice and Not In Building Our Jewish Lives

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Terumah

Humans Make The Curtains, Not the Mishkan

After discussing many of the appurtenances of the Mishkan, the temporary Temple Hashem is telling the Jews to build in our parsha, Hashem gets to the structure itself, and says to make it of ten yeri’ot, tapestries, cloths, drapes, or curtains, depending on which the translations on Sefaria to Shemot 26;1 you read.

Kli Yakar first points out a switch in the phrasing. Until now, for the furnishings of the Mishkan, the Torah had said ve-asita, you shall make, a table, or a menorah, whatever. The Torah does not say to “make” the Mishkan, it says to make the yeri’ot, Kli Yakar thinks because the structure was where God had said He would reside His Presence. It would be at best indelicate to say Moshe should build the place God would go.

What Moshe could control was making the yeri’ot, and Hashem would then decide to enshrine the Presence, as He had said He would.

The Ten Curtains and the Ten Definitions of Creation

Still, he does think the curtains will form a structure with messages for us. Avot 5;1 pointed out God used ten words of creation to make the world, as it were [the first chapters of Bereshit have va-yomer, and God said, nine times, and the word bereshit counts, too]. But creation was not fixed in existence until the sixth of Sivan, when the Jews accepted the Torah, where there were ten Dibberot [statements or pronouncements].

He emphasizes how Avot referred to the ma’amarot of creation, where what was said at Sinai were devarim or dibberotMa’amarot are sayings, and it left creation (Kli Yakar says) to choose the form it took, with no coercion from God. By the time of matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, people’s previous failures had shown they needed more specific guidance, were given in dibbur (a word tradition many times took to be harsher than amirah, saying). Kli Yakar gives one example, the Midrashic tradition God told us we could accept the Torah or be buried at Sinai. He finds the idea implicit in Tehillim 29;4, the Voice of God was with strength, that Hashem used strength to require us to accept the Torah.

He sees the idea signified also in the length of each yeri’ah, twenty-eight amah, because ko’ah, the word for strength, is twenty-eight in gematria.

The World That Could Have Been

[He has assumed a deep and fascinating idea I have seen elsewhere, too, that Hashem left creation—which we Westerners often treat as if it has no consciousness—to choose the form it took. It also leaves room for much of evolution as scientists portray it, because Hashem chose to let the world develop itself.

Creation failed at that (Rashi thinks the trees, for example, were supposed to taste the same as the fruit they produced, but did not), first leading to the Flood, then the Giving of the Torah. The greater direction of Torah law more forcefully determined how we were to be shaped, but also should have made it easier to avoid the really big mistakes.

I once heard Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky argue that Rambam implies a similar idea in his description of how Torah law came to be, in Laws of Idolatry and Laws of Kings, that early attempts at a Jewish people involved little law, but the important messages of the religion had no staying power without laws to enforce and reinforce them.

It’s a lesson I continue to ponder, how much freedom to choose is really good for us. On the details you might disagree with me, but it seems clear that many, many people today are wrong on very fundamental issues, and that the world itself does not force finding the right way, nor does the existence of Torah and those who study it solve the problem. But it was supposed to.]

Kli Yakar’s Own Idea of How We Use Our Intellects

He had seen all this in earlier sources (particularly the Torah commentary of the Ba’al Ha-Turim, R. Ya’akov b. Ha-Rosh, author of the Tur, who gets too-little credit for his role in shaping how we continue to experience halakha, since Shulhan Arukh adopted his structure completely). For his own part, Kli Yakar suggests the fifty hooks connecting the two sets of five curtains parallel the fifty gates of wisdom, by which one can link the five dibberot on the left, the dibberot of human society, not to murder, etc., to the dibberot of the upper worlds, the ones on the right having to do with Jews’ relationship with God more directly.

Adding to the idea, Shemot 26;33 tells us to place the parochet, the wall or curtain between the kodesh, the regular room of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies entered in service only on Yom Kippur, directly under the kerasim, the hooks of the curtains. On the top and on the bottom, this was the place linking our world to the hard-to-fathom divine world. For the bottom, the kodesh had furnishings tradition assumed were symbols of ordinary human success, such as wealth and Torah study.

The parochet and the kerasim, the hooks, are there to encourage us to realize we can use the fifty gates of wisdom/insight to ascend in our connection to God, should not think there is any absolute barrier between us and our Creator.

We can’t make the Mishkan to hold God, we can make the yeri’ot, put them together in the way we were told, and God will then choose to place a Presence there. But the yeri’ot we make, with their connecting hooks, tell us about the disparate elements of the world we are meant to unify, remind us they originally might have been unified through God’s “speech,” but we and creation failed, needed instead the dibberot, the harsher pronouncements of Sinai, to guide us better in our ascent through the fifty gates of wisdom, to what we should remember we can do, develop a relationship with the transcendent God, Who chose to be immanent in our world, too.

Uncertainty in the Structure of the Menorah

Verse 25;34 is one of five verses where the tanna Issi b. Yehuda (Yoma 52b) identified a reading challenge, a word whose place in the verse cannot be ascertained. Here, the word meshukadim, almond-shaped or engraved, might refer to the cups of the base of the Menorah, the word before meshukadim, or to the kaftoreha u-fraheha, the knobs and flowers, which come after.

Hatam Sofer, 25;33, wonders why we are unsure, since the very previous verse, discussing the branches of the Menorah, made clear the cups on the branches were meshukadim. Wouldn’t it make sense to assume the same was true here? Not if we keep in mind the symbolism of the Menorah, he says, which he is sure refers to the light of Torah, the branches are the students and the base is the teacher, the already accomplished Torah scholar, and the open question is whether his Torah study takes the same shape as theirs.

The Form of Lifetime Torah Study

Kiddushin 30a adjures us to divide our study time equally among the Written Torah, Oral Torah, and Talmud, where we draw accurate new conclusions based on the previous material. [There’s more to say on that, but not here.] The Ge’onim assumed this was lifelong guidance, Torah has three aspects to it and we should work on all equally always. Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 1;12, argued this was only in the early stages of development into a Torah scholar. An established Torah scholar properly puts more of his time into Talmud, addressing the rest through regular review, but giving it much less time.  If so, we know why the Torah is clear that the branches, a reference to outgrowths of Torah study, new students, need the shekidah [the idea of almond design; Hatam Sofer punning on shekidah also meaning dedicated attention or study] for all three, the cup, flower, and knob.

The center line of the Menorah alludes to the established Torah scholar [he is assuming Torah scholars move from the branches to the center as they learn more, a casual aside I like very much but do not have the space to explore], we could read it like the Ge’onim, the shekidah still applies to all the parts, or like Rambam, the shekidah is on the kaftor and ferah, the parts of Torah that need deep insight and thought, not the rest.

[Hatam Sofer does not directly address the fascinating pluralism he seems to be assuming here. I think he is suggesting the Torah anticipated these two views of the nature of Torah study, knew they would develop and therefore left this verse fluid, readable both ways, to allow each to find its basis in Torah. If Hashem wrote the Torah that way, it suggests an elu va-elu, that both views are the words of the Living God, where God was equally comfortable with either option.

After all, Issi b. Yehudah didn’t say we don’t know how to read the verse anymore, he said the verse can be read either way, with no way to decide. For Hatam Sofer, the parallel is that an accomplished Torah scholar has two ways to go with his/her personal study, to follow the Ge’onim or follow Rambam, with no right or wrong.]

A Voluntary or Obligatory Mishkan?

Reaching now to the second verse of the parsha, 25;2, Hashem commands Moshe to have the Jewish people gather terumah, offerings, from everyone asher yidvenu libo, whose heart moves him/her to generosity. I skipped a word, because Hashem really says ve-yikhu li, let them take to Me, the word li telling Rashi the taking had to be lishmi, for the purpose of using the items in God’s service.

Ha’amek Davar knows of other places Tannaitic literature makes the same inference, but is puzzled by it here, because many commentators understood the Torah to require the Mishkan be built purely of voluntary donations. If so, they are obviously in God’s Name, because that’s the whole reason for the donation.

Besides, Ha’amek Davar objects to the idea the Mishkan was built solely of voluntary gifts, because the Tosefta in Baba Batra gives people of a city the right to force each other to build a local synagogue; since the Mishkan is an actual commandment in the Torah to build, wouldn’t they have the ability to force each other? Courts have the power to coerce the observance of obligations in general [another one of those halakhic truisms many Western-leaning Jews prefer to ignore because it’s not in practice today anyway].

Even better, Rambam in Laws of the Chosen Temple 1;12 (how Sefaria translates it; I have had friends in the past complain about my preferred translation, Laws of the Select House) is certain all Jews are obligated to build a Beit Ha-Mikdash, a Temple, just as in the desert, making clear the building of the Mishkan was an obligation on each Jew, not whoever felt moved.

As So Often, the Answer is Both

He says—I think this is his hiddush, a really interesting one—that a passage in Baba Batra 8 assumes the leaders would expropriate the needed materials from those who had them; those materials had to be taken lishmi, with the intent to be dedicated to God.

In addition, the verse wanted to open the door to voluntary donations (as opposed to the adanim, the silver sockets holding together the planks of the walls of the Mishkan, where it had to be a half-shekel from every Jew, only).

In the next verse, Ha’amek Davar points out and accepts a surprising ramification of his idea: the coercive collection of materials took only from those who had what was needed. Those who didn’t have those specific materials could get away almost free, a very different perspective than the “half-shekel and only a half-shekel from all,” or also from “only voluntary gifts, it’s all one’s generosity.” For Ha’amek Davar, it’s most accurate to say “of needed materials, from each according to ability to contribute, for one small piece of the Mishkan from all equally, and for the rest, whatever people choose to give.”

The Shape of Our Lives

To what extent are we the captains of our ship, the masters of our fates? Kli Yakar thinks we might have been more so, had we and Nature handled Creation with ma’amarot better. Instead, we got to the dibberot of Sinai, symbolized by the ten curtains of the Mishkan, where the basic nature of the Jew was more specifically legislated than it might have had to be; Hatam Sofer thinks the Torah consciously left undecided the curriculum of Torah study of the advanced scholar; and Ha’amek Davar says possessing the right materials would require someone to be a greater donor to the Mishkan than his/her fellow Jews, choice not allowed.

About Gidon Rothstein

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