Terumah (and the rest of the book of Exodus) continues the “how to” manual that we opened last week in Mishpatim with its list of laws. Terumah and the succeeding chapters deal with the building of the sanctuary and the establishment of the calendar. The sanctuary is sacred space; the calendar delineates sacred time. As Rabbi Nahum Sarna points out, we need sacred deeds, sacred space and sacred time, in order to live moral lives. The relative brevity of the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (parashat Yitro) and the relative length of the text relating to laws and the building of the sanctuary are the real story: listening to a “lecture” on morality, is easy; living a moral life is much harder and requires much more instruction.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (EX 25:1-8)
This is the beginning of the parashat and it is very well-known to anyone who attends synagogue services during a fundraising appeal. I myself used it when I was president of wonderful Ansche Chesed in New York. It’s unavoidable! And, of course, there is the humorous English translation of “goat skin leather” into “dolphin skins”. (There were no dolphins in the Sinai desert in all likelihood). More important (and more seriously) is the idea that Gd will dwell among us. This is directly related to the “how to” manual: when we live and lead moral lives, Gd dwells among us and with us.
The chapter continues with instructions for building the ark, the cover of the ark, the tables in the sanctuary, the lamp and lampstand (Menorah מבורה), the outside of the ark, the curtain in front of the ark and the fences around the sanctuary. There is exquisite detail in the instructions which you can read here.
Here are my takeaways:
1. There is poetry in work. The building of the tabernacle is art and craft.
2. Gd lives in our hands, our work, in our craft and in our art. Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Sufi sage (13th century), known as “Rumi” taught this: “the Worker is hidden in the workshop : enter the workshop if you want to see Him”. Mathnawi II: 759-762.
3.Creation, re-creation, pro-creation are intertwined and inextricable in our lives. Gd created the world but human beings build the world.
4. Precision matters. Here are Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s notes: “Precision matters. Order matters. The misplacement of even a few of the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome can lead to devastating genetic conditions. The famous “butterfly effect” – the beating of a butterfly’s wing somewhere may cause a tsunami elsewhere, thousands of miles away – tells us that small actions can have large consequences”. (The Architecture of Holiness, Jonathan Sacks, 17 February 2017, website of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks).
5. The building of the sanctuary defines the phrase: “a labor of love”. When we do what we love, when we love our work, when the product of our minds and our hands helps build the world, we build sacred space, we build our sanctuaries.