By Rabbi Arnold Saltzman
This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
Our Torah reading, Terumah, begins with Moses instructing the Israelite people to take a portion, terumah (a gift or donation) for the building of the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary. This request applies to all those whose heart so motivates them. In this parsha, God, speaking to Moses, has commanded this instruction: “And let them take for me.”
Rashi, the great commentator on the Torah, says that this is to be for love of God, for God’s sake and glory, and not because God needed these items. Also, this would not be due to pressure, or from a desire for their own name to be honored. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno adds that this instruction did not wait until the Sanhedrin to collect, rather the people went immediately from Moses’ presence to bring more than was required.
A “wish list” of required items is given (according to Rashi,13 items, while literally the count is 15 items), including gold, silver and copper; turquoise, purple and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair … and more. My father, (z”l), was a tailor. Whereas many people find such lists of items not that interesting, my father would have been excited by the mentioning of good fabric, colors and wool which were used for a sacred purpose. This not only elevated the connection with the sanctuary or Mishkan, it affirmed the sacred work of those craftsmen and women who transformed these materials into a sanctuary.
The idea of bringing gifts is not only bringing material objects. Crafts people, the tailors and seamstresses, the builders, and others bring their skills, which are essential to completing this work in partnership with a divine blueprint. To review, leading up to this command to bring gifts in order to build the sanctuary, we experienced the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, and Revelation at Sinai. This series of events in a short span of time is like no other in history.
So much has been done for the Israelites. Now, Moses makes an appeal, and famously, more is given than is necessary for the first and last time in history. One of the many questions my students ask is: Where did they find these objects and materials Good question.
We learn that in leaving Egypt, some were given gifts.
In Exodus 12:35, we read that the Israelites asked from the Egyptians objects of silver, gold and clothing.
Another question is: Why did the Egyptians give them anything willingly? Wasn’t this a time of great conflict and plagues? On the one hand, God made them willing, while on the other hand, the Egyptians wanted to save themselves from additional plagues and many disagreed with their tyrannical Pharaoh.
We also know that giving gifts was a sign of appreciation for service as well as concern. Slaves wore gold, copper and silver rings, bracelets and armbands indicating that they were slaves and possibly for decorative reasons. If that is the case, they would willingly give their gold, silver and copper to further erase the signs of slavery. We also learn that there were Egyptians who left with the Israelites, having formed attachments, and they left with their household possessions intact.
The looming question is: Why build a Mishkan — a portable sanctuary — when revelation can occur on a mountain (Har Sinai)? In the commandment to bring gifts we see how the act of donating, building an ark, a menorah, a sanctuary was the way to “let God in.” The Kotzker Rebbe said: “Where does God dwell? Wherever you let him in.”
In a similar way we can say, “Where does the community dwell?”
Based on this Torah portion, the answer would seem to be in the acts of building a sanctuary. There we find a sacred unifying principle. This concept continues the Revelation at Sinai. It recognizes that in our sacred work, worship and study, we can be a sacred community in a sacred space, making a space sacred. We have to include letting people in to share this space.
In the incident of the Golden Calf, the people are brought together to create something anathema to Judaism: a golden idol. Contrast this with a sacred space which has no God-form, rather the testimony of commandments, and a sanctuary for God’s glory, so that God might dwell among us. This further informs us that while God dwells within us and everywhere, it is in our working together that we engender terumah, gifts given by every person whose heart moves them to do so, and thereby participate in building a sacred space for God’s glory to dwell among us.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Shaare Shalom of Waldorf. He is a member of the Educational Directors Council.