Parshat Terumah: The original ‘e pluribus unum’

Parshat Terumah deals with the process of collecting the voluntary contributions of materials needed for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the fashioning of its furnishings and implements.

The way the Torah deploys singulars and plurals in this parsha is unusual. For example, while it would take a huge number of donors and donations to make this project successful, nevertheless the myriad gifts are spoken of only in the singular:

ויקחו לי תרומה
שמות כה:ב

… and they shall take for me a ‘terumah’
(Exodus 25:2)

The word ‘terumah’ is also odd, as it does not mean gift, but rather a spiritual ‘lifting’ despite the fact that, as with all gifts, it requires personal generosity. Indeed the Torah makes the need for a generous impulse very clear when it says: (כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו (ב / every man whose heart moves him, which Rashi argues is based on the Hebrew word for gift ie ידבנו=נדבה. Nevertheless the word used here for the gift itself is terumah. (I will argue shortly for a radical reinterpretation of the words כל איש.)

The Torah then tells us the purpose of all this activity in verse 8 when it says:

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם
and they shall make for me a sanctuary
and I will dwell among them

In my previous commentary on this parsha ( I explain how this verse refers not to the Children of Israel but rather to the Tabernacle and its artifacts, i.e. the totality of this construct and its contents will comprise the dwelling within which G-d will reside.

Indeed, the unusual plural usage in verse 8 cannot be referring to the donors/builders of the Mishkan who, as we shall see, are referred to almost exclusively in the masculine singular.

That this is the case is made abundantly clear by the radical shift to second person singular for the entire project. Not once does the Torah use the second person plural in commanding the myriad design and construction tasks. Indeed we see the word ועשיתand you (singular) shall make – rather than the plural ועשיתם  used 32 times, in addition to liberal use of such terms as ונתת תעשה and יעשה – all of which are exclusively both singular and masculine.

So what is going on here? Why is this agglomeration of gifts spoken of as one – Terumah? And why are the thousands of contributors who are credited with the fashioning of each of the details referred to in the singular?

I have already commented on the national census taken in Bamidbar 1 (Numbers 1) where the Torah makes is very clear that:

A: Only men ages 20 and up who have served in the army can be counted:
שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל … כל זכר לגלגלתם
מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה כל יצא צוה בישראל תפקדו אתם

B: That these men are referred to as “ish”   איש:
ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה איש ראש לבית אבותיו הוא
and with you shall be an ish of every tribe etc.(4)

The word “ish” is not just any man. Rather, it is a man who has served in the military. Only such men are counted in the census, and only such men ultimately matter in any meaningful sense.

Applying this understanding to Parshat Terumah enables us to see the picture very differently.

By using the term “ish” the Torah makes it clear that only a man who qualifies as “ish” may participate in in the Terumah. Any male who has not served in the army is disqualified. The Torah may even be taking it as a given that men who do not serve are unlikely to make an offering which requires a ‘generosity of the heart’. Such men lack generosity of spirit and a core appreciation of the importance of collaborating as one in order to achieve a greater goal.

What’s more, the words כל איש do not mean ‘every man’, but rather the totality of ish. The single unit of ish that volunteers from a single heart – אשר ידבנו לבו – results in a Terumah, an uplifting which through this singular, united, selfless act of generosity elevates them as one. Collectively it is they who become the Terumah. Indeed, e pluribus unum.

Yes, the parsha begins with וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם , this is the Terumah you shall take from them. But once it has been gathered ‘them’ becomes one.

It is the fraternity of comrades in arms that creates unity, a sense of common purpose, a readiness to do for the other, the ability to share burdens and responsibilities and thereby to be lifted above the fray.

No wonder the cherubim that stand as sentries atop the ark are referred to as brothers whose wings lift them toward the heavens:

והיו הכרובים פרשי כנפים למעלה סככים בכנפיהם על הכפרת
ופניהם איש אל אחיו

And the keruvim shall stretch out their wings on high
… and they shall be facing ‘ish’ to his brother

What better metaphor for the defenders of Israel – today like then – always on the watch, always lifting together as brothers. Only such men are worthy – indeed even capable – of stepping up to the plate with generosity of spirit, thereby creating a true Terumah which can result in an earthly domicile fit for G-d.