Parshat Terumah: The original ‘e pluribus unum’ / from the many, one

Parshat Terumah deals with the process of collecting the voluntary contributions of materials needed for the construction of the משכן (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 significant 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 תרומה is also odd, as it does not mean ‘gift’, but rather a spiritual ‘lifting’ (similar to Parshat Noah -Genesis 6:16- וישאו את התבה ותרם מעל הארץ ) 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  / 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 תרומה. (I will argue shortly for a radical reinterpretation of the words כל איש.) As well, in the same verse, G-d refers to the תרומה as his own – תקחו את תרומתי. If the word תרומה were merely a synonym for נדבה it would say תרומתם or תרומתו.

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 משכן 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 משכן 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 ועשית — and 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 — תרומה? 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 1 במדבר  (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 ” ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה: איש איש לבית אבותיו הוא and with you shall be an איש of every tribe etc.

The word “איש” 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 “איש” the Torah makes it clear that only a man who qualifies as “איש” 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 any offering as this requires a ‘generosity of the heart’. Men who do not serve in the army lack generosity of spirit and the 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 איש. It is the single unit of איש that volunteers from a single heart — אשר ידבנו לבו — which results in a תרומה, an uplifting which through this singular, united, selfless act of generosity elevates them as one. Collectively it is they who become the תרומה. Indeed, e pluribus unum. And collectively it is this one that becomes the תרומה of G-d. Hence תקחו את תרומתי.

Yes, the parsha begins with וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם , this is the תרומה 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 ‘איש’ to his brother

Nevertheless, despite wings spread for flying, and despite facing one another, the cherubim are looking down אל הכפרת יהיו פני הכרובים  26:20 because those who protect and defend Israel are forever vigilant over what is happening below.

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 a true generosity of spirit, thereby creating a true תרומה which can result in an earthly domicile fit for G-d.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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