Terumah: Life Happens

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or follower, gouache on board, 7 3/8 x 8 13/16 in. (18.7 x 22.5 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York

“A place for everything, and everything in its place”, the proverb goes. And yet, often, life happens, and we just don’t have a place for everything, nor can we always return everything to its place. No Parsha highlights the human struggle for finding a place for everything in a world that often seems to have everything out of place. The Mishkan is the epitome of creating a sacred space in a world that is so often so disorganized.  

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.” (Exodus chapter 25)

While commentaries (most notably Rashi and Nachmanides) disagree as to whether this command took place before the sin of the golden calf or right after it, all agree this was shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are wandering the desert, with no place to live, yearning for a place where they can belong. 

God goes on to remind them what exactly their place is:

“And they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst”.

The place of the Jewish people is with God, as His presence rests among them. God uses the mitzvah of the Mishkan to teach the Jewish people that no matter where we are, we are with Him— and He is with us. Though we may travel and traverse, our place is always with Him. 

No part of the Mishkan makes this as clear as the epicenter of the Mishkan, the very first item ordered to be built—coming even before the actual structure of the Mishkan—the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah says:

“They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around.”

The ark is the most beautiful piece in the Mishkan; it is also the most important one. The very name of the Tabernacle—Mishkan Ha’edut—the tabernacle of the covenant, is inspired by the ark. The entire construction of the tabernacle surrounds the ark, which is also why the ark is the most beautified vessel in the tabernacle. This would also lead one to think the ark is the most permanent aspect of the tabernacle. Scripture tells us otherwise:

“And you shall cast four golden rings for it, and you shall place them upon its four corners, two rings on its one side, and two rings on its other side. And you shall make poles of acacia wood and you shall overlay them with gold. And you shall bring the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them. The poles of the ark shall be in the rings; they shall not be removed from it.”

Polls meant to carry a vessel of the Mishkan existed in other vessels in the Mishkan. What was unique about the polls in the ark is the prohibition against removing them at any time. For more than four hundred years, resting in the King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, the ark sat in the same place, with polls in it all ready to go. Why? Why did it need to be ready to go at all times?

The lesson of the ark is one of the most potent lessons Judaism has for us: always be ready to move. Make sure what is sacred and holy is there with you at all times. No matter how attached you are to your current synagogue, studies, and spirituality, you must always remember: the Torah must be prepared to go with you to all places; the polls, symbolizing its mobility, remind us of the need to carry it with us to wherever we go. 

A beautiful story about the legendary rabbi and dean of the great Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, illustrates his best. Rabbi Shmuelevitz and the entire Yeshiva, with hundreds of students, fled the Nazi advances from the West, through miraculous trials and tribulations. Like few others, they left the city of Vilna going East. They took the train across Russia, a boat to Japan—a Nazi ally at the time—and from there got on a boat heading to Shanghai, China—escaping the Holocaust. The rabbi, sitting on the deck of the ship on a cloudy day, was engrossed in learning with a book in his hand. A student approached him with confusion, saying: “Rabbi, where are we now?” 

The rabbi said: “We are learning chapter three, of course!”

The rabbi went on to explain to his student that if ask a baby being held by its own mother: “where are you now?” the most likely and most correct answer is: “in my mother’s hands!” It does not matter what her current geographical location is at the moment. The child is in her mother’s hands. Similarly, a Jew must always know that their place is with God’s Divine presence and with the study of His Torah. 

American author Peter McWilliams (1949– 2000) once wrote: “the definition of a victim is: a person to whom life happens.” History has shown time, and again, this is not true in the case of the Jewish people and so many others. Life does happen. Situations, often beyond our control, might take us from one place to the other. The Mishkan and the ark serve as a powerful lesson of what to do when life happens. Always remember there is space for holiness. Make sure your Torah and spiritual lifeline travel with you to wherever you go. No matter where you go, and no matter what happens: “they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst”.

Shabbat Shalom! 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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