Five Rashis a Week, Terumah: Materials of a Mishkan

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Voluntary and Required Contributions

This week’s parsha begins detailing the materials and furnishings of the Mishkan (continuing next week, and then largely repeated two weeks after that, in the doubled parsha of Vayakhel/Pekudei). Right at the beginning, 25;2, Hashem tells Moshe to have the Jews take a terumah; Rashi stresses that that indicates a voluntary contribution.  The verse later refers to ידבנו לבו, for Rashi another mention that these contributions be completely voluntary.

When the verse closes with תקחו את תרומתי, you shall take my terumah, Rashi notes that Chazal read the three uses of terumah as referring to three separate collections. Two were of a בקע (a half-shekel coin) per person, one of which went to the אדנים, the bases of the Mishkan, the other funding the communal sacrifices. The third terumah was however much each person felt moved to give.

Despite his several stresses on the voluntary, we now find out that two of the three were both mandatory and a specific amount. Rashi could have as easily said the Torah requires us to give certain amounts to the building of the Mishkan, while allowing for voluntary contributions (like mandatory dues, with room left for additional voluntary gifts).

It seems Rashi wants us to understand that the Torah’s use of the word terumah, implying a freewill gift, and its’ mention of ידבנו לבו, the person’s heart moving him or her to contribute, was to tell us that the underlying experience of all these contributions was supposed to be that they were freewill offerings, even when the Torah required us to give, and how much. Supporting the House of God, as it were, should be a privilege we welcome, even when there is a mandated version of that support

Materials, Singular and Prepared

25;5 refers to תחשים, whose exact identity is unknown. Rashi says it was a multicolored animal that only existed at that moment, for its skins to be used for the Mishkan.

The next material mentioned is עצי שטים, generally assumed to be acacia, common to the Negev.  Rashi, however, wonders how they had such wood there, and cites Midrash Tanchuma, that Ya’akov Avinu foresaw the need, brought some with him from Canaan, planted them in Egypt, and commanded his children to tend them and to bring them when they were redeemed. He repeats the point on 26;15, when the verse refers to הקרשים, the boards, the ones Ya’akov had brought with him.

Rashi is comfortable with Hashem producing a one-time animal to use its hides as coverings for the Mishkan, but then insists on finding a natural source for the wood for the Mishkan—why not say Hashem made such trees appear so the Jews could use them?

It is a first example—we’ll see one more—of Rashi’s seeing the Mishkan incorporating two sides of a dichotomy. Here, it’s including both a supernatural animal, made for one purpose only, yet finding a way for the wood to have been natural. Rashi’s Mishkan had natural and supernatural elements in its very construction, even if it took a stretch—the otherwise unsourced assumption that Ya’akov Avinu brought trees to Egypt to plant for taking with them in the eventual Exodus.

Liturgy as a Source of Knowledge

The second time Rashi mentions the Midrash about Ya’akov preparing wood for the Exodus, 26;15, he mentions that that idea is found in the piyyut, and quotes a liturgical poem that speaks of the alacrity of those who planted the wood for the eventual House.

It is one of two times Rashi mentions piyyut in his Torah commentary (he does so nine more times in the rest of his Tanach commentaries, I checked on the Bar-Ilan). I always notice it because I once scored points with an important Torah scholar by having noticed the other mention of piyyut, when this much more learned man did not recall that Rashi ever did that.

More, since I grew up in communities that said as little piyyut as possible—and never krovetz, that I can remember—it is a reminder of a time when Jews said, understood, and were educated by these poems, when the tune was not the only element they found beneficial.

Out of One, Many (E. Unum, Pluribus)

The parsha refers to an item of the Mishkan as having been מקשה twice, the keruvim, the angelic figures that extruded from the kaporet, the covering for the Aron (the Ark of the Covenant for any remaining Raiders fans out there), and the Menorah (25;18 and 31 respectively). Each time, Rashi explains at length the difference between taking pieces of gold, shaping them, and then soldering them together and מקשה, beating one piece of gold into the final shape it was supposed to have.

This is difficult in general, even more so for the Menorah, which had many parts. Perhaps because of that, Midrashim see Moshe having such difficulty with the Menorah that Hashem showed him how to make it step by step. Rashi relies on the Tanchuma, which assumes that that wasn’t enough, that Hashem eventually had Moshe throw the gold in the fire and a Menorah came out. Other Midrashim think Hashem sent Moshe to Betzalel, who made the Monorah with no trouble at all.

At the invitation of my longtime chavruta, Eli Weber, I had the pleasure of discussing some of these issues with a group of students at Yeshivat Har Etzion this week. One suggested that in Rashi’s version, the Menorah becomes a sort of reversal of the Golden Calf, in that this time Moshe throws gold into the fire and something holy comes out.

Either way, Rashi stresses the meaning of מקשה, but does not explain its importance. Why insist on producing these items from one original piece of gold? The possibility that struck me on this time through Rashi (and that, as Eli Weber pointed out to me, is another example of a theme I have noticed periodically for the past twenty-five years) is that this turns the keruvim and the Menorah into symbols of producing individualism within an overall unity.

The Mishkan is almost surely meant to be symbolic (as well as literal); one piece of that symbolism is that the keruvim (Baba Batra 99a thinks their facing towards or away from each other indicated whether the Jews were doing Hashem’s Will or not) and the Menorah remind us that we were never meant to all be of one type or lifestyle. There were always twelve tribes (not including Levi), each with its’ own different yet equally appropriate way of living.

In producing the Mishkan, we acted out the capaciousness of the overall unity of the nation. From the one nation, we could produce and accommodate very different tribes (and family units within those tribes). From one piece of gold, we could produce branches, base, cups, and buttons of the Menorah, figures of the keruvim atop the Aron.

Out of Many, One (E. Pluribus Unum)

Interesting as that is on its own, it is even more so when we notice that Rashi also sees the Mishkan as including the reverse. In both 26;1 and 31, Rashi notes that four materials were wound together, one of linen and three of wool (meaning they were shatnez, forbidden for Jews to wear), and six such threads were combined to make up each thread sewn into the Mishkan.

I don’t think the number twenty-four (twice the number of tribes) is accidental, but I don’t want to speculate too much. What is explicit in Rashi is that in this case, many different parts are brought together, more than minimally necessary. It seems to me to suggest that Hashem wanted the Mishkan to have this idea as well, that very different parts can and should be brought together, to produce a multifaceted whole that none of them could produce on their own. (The multicolored תחשים might also show that, that each of the colors contributes to the whole).

Noting these elements doesn’t answer all the questions—why was gold where we beat many parts out of one, while cloth was the reverse (was it purely technical, that it’s impossible to divide threads into many parts, whereas it can be done with metals, and the Menorah and kaporet were the only all-gold parts of the Mishkan)?

What I hope I have shown is that the question of individuality and belonging to a larger whole crops up in the Mishkan itself, where Rashi points us in the direction of an ever-present balancing act, sometimes focused on building a unified nation still pluralistic enough to allow for valuable difference, yet other times ask of the separate threads of the nation to bind together, enriched by each while forging a stronger whole than any part could have produced on its own.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.