Terumah: The First Commandment
This week we are reading Parashat Terumah, and in fact that’s what I wanted to talk about this week: the fact that we’re reading Parashat Terumah. When I say we’re reading it, what I mean is that on the Jewish calendar this is the week in which these 2½ chapters are read in synagogues – the rishon aliyah on Monday and Thursday morning and at minchah last Saturday afternoon, and then the entire section on Saturday morning.
It’s true that not every synagogue has a reading of the entire parashah. There are synagogues on a triennial schedule, where only one-third of the parashah is read. I see that 5783 is the first year of the triennial calendar. Still other synagogues are going to read even a much smaller portion of the Torah, perhaps just nine or ten verses. But whatever they read is going to come from Exod 25:1-27:19. I’ve never been in a synagogue where the Torah reading was not from the portion that Jews all over the world were reading. That’s a great thing, but it’s also a little bit of a not good thing. Here’s why.
We have a tendency only to read the things that we’re scheduled to read. Lots of Jews don’t know anything about the rest of the Bible beyond the end of the book of Deuteronomy except for the haftarot, taken from the Prophets section; from the rest of the Bible, the Writings, a few psalms and perhaps the Five Scrolls. (Everybody who’s Jewish knows the book of Esther; if you’re not Jewish, and don’t know Esther, let me recommend the graphic novel version of it by J.T. Waldman.) The bottom line is that, with the exception of the Megillot once a year, Jews don’t read any biblical books “from cover to cover.”
We do at least read the Torah from beginning to end; what we don’t often do is read any part of it other than the portion of the week. Very few people are going to be dipping into the Torah anywhere other than Parashat Terumah this week, and that’s a shame. If you just begin at the beginning of Parashat Terumah you don’t have any context for what you are reading.
Here’s the beginning of Exodus 25, the beginning of this week’s portion: “YHWH spoke to Moses, saying.” That of course could be anywhere in the Torah. “Tell the Israelites to get contributions for Me” — gold, silver, and all the other high-end construction materials — “and let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”
Question: When did God say this to Moses? If you just begin at Exod 25:1, you don’t have any idea. You remember vaguely that this is after they’ve left Egypt, after they’ve gotten the Ten Commandments, and before the golden calf episode and Moses not getting to see God’s face, the two major plot points that are going to interrupt this recounting of (1) the instructions for building the Tabernacle, and then (2) the description of actually building it.
I ask again: When did God say this to Moses? What’s the context? Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesterweek, to Parashat Yitro and Exodus 19, which begins on “the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt.” It ends this way: “Moses went down to the people and said to them …” (Exod 19:25). Exodus 20 begins, “God spoke all these words.” It sounds, somewhat awkwardly, as if Moses is saying that to the people and then reciting the Ten Commandments by quoting God’s saying them.
Then at the end of the Ten Commandments you have, “YHWH said to Moses: ‘Say this to the Israelites,’” and a few more verses of instructions. Exodus 21 continues without introduction, as if it were more of that same speech, to say, “These are the rules that you shall set before them.” There follow 2½ chapters of various laws — we talked about some of them last week — and then, in the middle of Exodus 23 and still without introduction, God addresses Moses personally once again: “I am sending an angel before you” (Exod 23: 20) and so forth. The rest of Exodus 23 deals with what will happen when the Israelites enter Canaan, eleven days away if Deut 1:2 is to be believed.
Now we’ve reached Exod 24:1. The NJPS translation, widely used among contemporary Jews, writes, “Then He said to Moses.” But a more correct translation of וְאֶל־מֹשֶׁ֨ה אָמַ֜ר v’el Moshe amar would be “He had said to Moses,” taking us back to some unidentified earlier moment. (Follow this link for a deeper dive into the grammar involved.) It would be reasonable to locate that moment before the last time we heard “YHWH said to Moses,” near the end of Exodus 20.
What follows in Exodus 24 sounds a lot like we have returned to Exodus 19 and the moments before the revelation to the Israelites. Rashi certainly thinks so. He remarks about Exod 24:1 (in my Commentators’ Bible translation), “This was said to Moses before the Ten Commandments. It was on the 4th of Sivan that he was told, ‘Come up.’” The Israelites solemnly agree to do “what YHWH has commanded” (though it’s not clear what this is), and then, commanded a second time to ascend the mountain in v. 12, Moses does so. The confusion in Exodus 19 about where Moses is located has resumed, but Exodus 24 ends this way:
Moses came into the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights.
And that is where Parashat Terumah begins.
If you follow the reading all the way from the beginning of Exodus 19, there’s quite a bewildering array of stage directions: Moses goes up the mountain; Moses goes down the mountain; sometimes he goes up and forgets to come down and goes up twice. God speaks to him some number of times; Moses communicates some sort of covenant terms to the Israelites; they are sealed in various covenant ceremonies; and it’s all extremely confusing.
My point is not to try to solve all of these conundrums — you can look at the various commentaries to do that, ancient, medieval, or modern — but to remind you that if you’re willing to start reading just one verse earlier than the beginning of Parashat Terumah, you find this:
Moses came into the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights. YHWH spoke to Moses as follows: “Speak to the Israelites and let them bring Me a contribution [terumah] … and let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”
One might have assumed that the first thing that God said to Moses after he went up the mountain to stay for 40 days and 40 nights was בראשית ברא אלהים ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. (For a better translation and more careful discussion, click here.)
But Parashat Terumah says that’s not so — or at least the conjunction between Parashat Terumah and Parashat Mishpatim says it’s not so. The first thing God told Moses was “Let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”
Almost the entire rest of the book of Exodus is about the building of that special place — the first commandment Moses received after ascending the mountain. I’ll have more to say about that over the next few weeks.