Parashat Terumah: What’s the story?
It’s interesting that right after the description of the covenant that Hashem makes with the children of Israel, instead of continuing the story of the Jews’ journey in the desert, the Torah chooses to describe the work done in the Tabernacle. Why?
Rabbi Benjy Myers is the educational director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel emissary training institutes.
How is a community built? What are society’s most basic needs? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies within the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. The first to call the children of Israel a “nation” is Pharaoh: “He said to his people, ‘Behold, the nation of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are.'” (Exodus 1:9).
Pharaoh was the first who understood that the children of Jacob, once just a large family, had now developed into a nation. Fearing the nation of Israel would one day overwhelm Egypt, he decides to subjugate them, and this is where the story begins. The nascent nation takes shape through their common experiences, such as exile and subjugation, the plagues in Egypt, the nation’s departure from that land, the splitting of the Red Sea and the subsequent Song of the Sea. The icing on the cake was the formative event at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, when the entire nation was camped against the foothills of the mountain, an entire people united, their hearts beating as one, as they stood up and proudly proclaimed “we will do, and we will listen.”
After the awesome events at Mount Sinai, which have left their mark on the Jewish people ever since, the Torah enumerates dozens of commandments between man and fellow man, emphasizing social justice and the proper treatment of the weaker elements of society. At the end of Parashat Mishpatim, we find a description of the covenant enacted between the Almighty and the nation of Israel. From this point on, we would have expected to encounter more stories about the nation travelling through the desert as it prepares to enter the Promised Land, as well as further details about the commandments.
This, however, isn’t what happens. The text doesn’t continue with the commandments between man and fellow man, such as commandments concerning the implementation of a judicial system, or the laws regarding damages. It doesn’t discuss commandments between man and God, either (like the laws of Shabbat, the festivals, or kosher food). Instead, the five parashiyot we will be reading in the upcoming weeks will deal almost exclusively with the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels. The text contains a detailed description of the Holy Ark, the Table, the Menorah, the altars, the curtains, the tent-poles and other items used in the ceremonies performed in the Tabernacle. Some vessels are gold while others are silver. Some textiles are dyed sky-blue, while others are dyed scarlet.
Why, then, does the Torah continue with such a detailed description of the construction of the Tabernacle, instead of the other commandments that it could have discussed?
One answer is that it wished to “batten down the hatches”. The commentators disagree over whether the Torah is written in chronological order, and whether the commandment to construct the Tabernacle was issued before the Sin of the Golden Calf. Without delving into this issue, I believe that clearly the purpose of recording this commandment at this point in the text is to teach us the proper uses of gold, before the Torah begins describing how it was misused.
Another reason can be found in the words of Nahmanides, who writes (in his commentary to Exodus 25:2) that after God gave the children of Israel “a few commandments which are like the principles of the commandments, as the rabbis practice with the converts that come to be Jewish – and Israel accepted to do all that He would command them through the hand of Moshe, and He made a covenant with them about all of this; behold, from then they are His as a people, and He is for them a God.” After the nation of Israel declared “we are your sons and you are our father, we are your nation and you are our God”, the time was ripe, and the people were ready for the next stage – determining where the Almighty would dwell within the nation, and from where He would speak to Moses and connect with the entire nation.
Perhaps, through a close reading of the words that begin this parasha, we’ll attain another insight tied to the sequence of parashiyot that involve building a community. When referring to the Holy Ark, the text reads “and you (plural) shall make an Ark”, though when referring to the other vessels, the text reads “and you (singular) shall make”. This transition from the plural to the singular is indicative of the Torah’s character. The Torah belongs to everyone, as echoed in the Gemara, in Tractate Kiddushin 66a, which states that the Torah is “wrapped and placed in the corner, anyone who wishes to study can come and study.” The entire nation is connected to the Torah. The entire nation said “we will do, and we will listen”. The Torah and its messages belong to everyone, to the entire community, as reflected in Shmot Rabbah (chapter 34, paragraph 2): “The Holy One said to him [Moses] – all can come and busy themselves with the ark, so that all come and merit the Torah.”
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra talks about another linguistic connection in his commentary on Exodus (25:10):
“Because he said in the beginning ‘and they made [it] for me’, he began in this way, and they shall make the Ark…” The commandment to build the Ark isn’t the only one worded in the plural (“and they made [it]”) – the commandment concerning the physical construction of the Tabernacle was addressed to a group. We are all commanded to take part and participate in the building of the Tabernacle, and I believe that this can teach us an important lesson for society at large. We have been given the responsibility and the obligation to work together in order to sanctify God’s heavenly name on Earth. Each individual brings whatever inspires their generosity and whatever the individual can and will be able to contribute, which could be silver, gold, or even skills such as weaving, engraving or embroidery.
We are all responsible for building our communities. The entire nation is a partner in the endeavor, and each individual can make his or her contribution, but the thought behind this effort must be that it is done voluntarily. Anything I do for the community is done as a contribution. This contribution could elevate the general public or our surroundings into a better place.
Building a society grounded in the Torah, namely in studying Torah and following its teachings, in avodah – the concept of “work”, and more specifically, work done together, with each individual contributing his or her two cents for the common good – and in gemilut hasadim, good deeds, when our giving is done as a contribution, keeping in mind that whatever I give will serve to benefit others.