AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Terumah

Updated: Mar 6

Parashat Terumah

Adar 4, 5780 – February 29, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Haftarah: Kings I 5:26 – 6:13



Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Terumah, which is Hebrew for “gift” or “offering.” These ‘gifts’ are a reference to the thirteen types of raw materials that the Jewish people are called upon to ‘offer’ as contributions for the construction of the Tabernacle – the portable structure that is to serve as the dwelling place (Heb: Mishkan) for G-d’s presence (Heb: Shechinah) as the Israelites move through the desert. The parashah begins with this line: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion, from every[one] whose heart motivates [them] you shall take My portion.” (25:1) What is unique about this line is that there are so many aspects of Torah that are mandatory – that are rules, laws, and commandments – yet, here a different type of responsibility is defined: the heart has to be motivated to give an offering. If we are to contextualize this opening verse from Parashat Terumah, it is important to note that many commentators insist that the instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle were only given after the sin of the Golden Calf.[1] Rashi, in particular, describes how the Torah is “not always written in chronological order in which the events occurred.” (Pesachim 6b) As we all know, the Tabernacle is a sort of prototype to the Holy Temple which will stand on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount was also to be the base of the Sanhedrin – the council of elders that presided over civil and judicial concerns. This is one reason to describe why Parashat Terumah immediately follows Parashat Mishpatim, even though their pairing breaks the linear chronology of Torah, as both ritual and law are designed to be conjoined in Judaism. But Rabbi Sforno takes this even further to assert that the construction of the Tabernacle was only made necessary becauseof the incident regarding the Golden Calf[2] – Parashat Terumahis introduced only after a catastrophic transgression, and this is significant if we are to understand the meaning behind the phrase “whose heart motivates [them].” In a post catastrophic world, what your heart prompts you to do matters, and this is a persuasive ecological message.[3]


Apart from chapters which pertain to Israel’s descent into idolatry, the remainder of the Book of Exodus revolves around the Mishkan – which is a section of the Torah that Ramban refers to as the Book of Redemption.[4] While the giving of the Torah at Sinai is considered the climax of the Exodus from Egypt, it wasn’t made a “permanent part of existence”[5]until the construction of this portable sanctuary. Portable, here, is the key word, because the Mishkanwas a structure that could be taken apart, transported, and reassembled as the Israelites moved through the wilderness. After listing the contributions for the Tabernacle – such as gold, silver, and copper; colored wool and linen; animal skins, wood, and oil – much of this parashah revolves around describing the design of the Sanctuary and its various components. In short, there are 4 spaces to be aware of: an inner and an outer Sanctuary (which comprises what we call the Tabernacle),[6] the Courtyard, and the surrounding enclosure. The Tabernacle itself was divided into two chambers by a partition (Heb: Parochet): the Holy of Holies (Heb: Kodesh HaKadashim) – which no one could enter, except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – and the Holy (Heb: Kadosh), which can be entered by any Kohen to perform the Service who is ritually pure.[7] The inner chamber housed the Ark of the Covenant (Heb: Aron), which contained the tablets of testimony that were given to Moshe on Sinai (i.e. the Ten Commandments). And on top of the ark stood two winged Cherubim (angelic beings), which – along with the Ark’s cover – were hammered out of one continuous piece of gold. The Menorah and the Shulchan (the Table that held the twelve loaves of “show-bread (Heb: Lechem HaPanim)”) were arranged in the outer sanctuary, where the incense altar also stood (although the specifications for this altar are given in the next parashah (30:1-6), Parashat Tetzaveh). This parashah describes what is known as “the Altar” (Heb: Mizbe’ach), which was located in the Tabernacle courtyard and was constructed from copper. There were three walls of the Tabernacle, which were made from 48 large planks of acacia wood. Each piece of wood was overlaid with gold – like the Ark – although the wooden Ark was covered “within and without” (25:11) with gold. The roof was made from three layers of fabric and animal hides, unifying everything that was inside of the Tabernacle, and – according to Or HaChaim – “the ten curtains of the Tabernacle symbolized the ten sayings with which G-d created the world” (Avot 5:1).[8] The entrance to the Tabernacle did not have a wall, instead it consisted of an embroidered hanging on the eastern side of the structure, which was supported by five pillars. All of this was surrounded by an enclosure of lace hangings, made from twisted linen, and supported by 60 wooden posts. In sum, there is a whole world of commentary on the symbolism of the various components of the Tabernacle, which are too detailed for the purposes of this essay. But suffice it to say that the Tabernacle was an incredibly ornate and magnificent structure that that stood as the centerpiece of spiritual life for the Jews in the wilderness.


With that being said, I would like to discuss a few aspects of the Ark and the Menorah as they relate to motivations of the heart, and their influence on our engagement with forms of action that can have ecological significance. Firstly, in 25:11, we are told that the Ark was covered with pure gold “from within and from without” – meaning that there were three layers to the Ark that progressed from gold, to wood (acacia), and then to gold. Commentators note that “this arrangement symbolized the Talmudic dictum that a Torah scholar must be consistent; [their] inner character must match [their] public demeanor, [their] actions must conform to [their] professed beliefs.”[9] The assertion here is quite simple: that the individual is only motivated rightly when there is a connection between our inner reality and our outer actions. In Kabbalistic thinking, the three layers of the Ark are said to represent three dimensions of the human being:

“The most inner ark, made of pure gold and tucked inside the other two arks, reflected the most inner dimension of the soul…the Divine, spiritual essence of our identity…The middle ark made of wood reflected the more visible conscious personality of the human soul. Just like wood, our feelings and attitudes go through many changes during our lives. We may develop and refine our ‘wooden’ character so that it becomes exquisite and beautiful, or our personality may grow rotten and putrid. Our ‘wooden’ self usually vacillates between extremes…Finally, the third and outer ark, conspicuous for all to see…reflected the Torah's blueprint for the most external stratum of the human structure — [our] behavior.”[10]

The point here is to emphasize that the middle Ark, made of wood, is the interface between the inner and out worlds – it is the organic world of vulnerability and change; it is the world of the heart.


There’s an interesting piece of Midrash that describes how Jacob, while in Egypt, anticipated that the Tabernacle would be built, and that there would be a need for lumber.[11] The walls of the Tabernacle, in particular, required large planks of acacia wood, and Jacob knew that it would be impossible to find that kind of wood in the Wilderness. In response to this need, “he planted the trees in Egypt and instructed his children that when they left their exile, they should take the wood with them.”[12] In Hebrew, the word for “acacia” (shitah) means “bending.”[13] It’s known as the bending tree because it bends to the side as it grows, rather than growing up. This is an intriguing detail, given that Jews were commanded “to make the planks of the Tabernacle of acacia wood, standing erect.” (26:15) For how does one build a vertical plank to stand erect from a tree that has a natural propensity to bend? The etymology of the word for “acacia” (shitah or shitim) shares its root with another word – “shetut” meaning “foolishness” or “folly.” This is, of course, fascinating because there is a connection between the Tabernacle and a particular type of wood that shares its etymology with the ultimate moment of “folly” in Jewish history – that being the descent into idolatry with the sin of the Golden Calf. Jacob also knew this would happen, which is even more intriguing, as it alludes to the principle that there is no earlier or later in the Torah – as Rabbi Akiva once said “Everything is foreseen, and permission is granted”[14] – in this case meaning, everything is known but we still have free choice, which demonstrates that Torah is operating in some meta-temporal or a-temporal realm ( this also explains why a linear chronology in Torah is not always necessitated). With that being said, perhaps it can be inferred that “foolishness” can be made holy or unholy – there is a bi-directionality to the wood that built the Ark and the Tabernacle – and it is up to us to decide which way it will bend. It could be reasoned that this “bending” refers to the two inclinations of the heart – the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov – one positive inclination that reaches up towards purity and G-d, and one negative inclination that gets lost in the travails of the material world.[15] Either way, our character can be continually refined or made rotten by the condition of our heart – the middle Ark of wood; the interface between the inner and outer worlds.


In closing, I’d like to address a teaching in the Midrash Tanchuma about the Menorah. In short, even after G-d revealed the design to Moshe, and showed him a Menorah of fire to better illustrate its form, Moshe still could not visualize how to make the Menorah properly. As a result, Moshe was instructed to throw the piece of gold into a fire, and a completed Menorah emerged.[16] Commentators explain that, not only was this was a miracle, but a demonstration of how miracles occur. “First, [we] must do what we can, [but if that isn’t enough], [then G-d] comes to [our] aid. Similarly, at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, G-d commanded Moshe to split the waters by raising his staff (14:16), and it was only after Moshe had done so that G-d performed the awesome miracle. In Egypt, and throughout the years in the Wilderness, Moshe performed acts that resulted in miracles; clearly only G-d makes miracles, but He wants [humans] to initiate them.”[17] It is so important, as the ecology of the world is facing certain change, that we strive to initiate a miracle. It may be difficult to conceptualize what that looks like – how we will nullify the constructs and corporations that are ruining our planet. But every day, we can work on the condition of our heart but unifying our inner intentions with the realm of outer action. If you are feeling inspired to make a difference – get out there, act, serve, plant a tree. You never know when, or how, that tree might me be needed. For all you know, the fate of the world is depending upon it.


Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.


Topics Include: motivations of the heart, symbolism of the Tabernacle, the Ark of acacia wood and the etymology of the word “folly”


Listen to this Podcast


References

Jacobson, Y. Yosef. “Gold, Wood, Gold: The Three Layers of Self.” As found at: https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/1764244/jewish/Gold-Wood-Gold.htm Accessed on March 1, 2020


Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).


Wisnefsky, Moshe. “Wednesday: Holy Foolishness.” Translated and adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As found at: https://www.chabad.org/dailystudy/dailywisdom_cdo/aid/2961073/jewish/Wednesday-Holy-Foolishness.htm

Accessed on March 2, 2020


  1. [1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.444 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.444 [3]Regarding this point, I must acknowledge the weekly Torah study teaching given by Rabbi David Levinsky who leads the congregation of Temple Har Shalom in Park City, Utah. [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.444 [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.444 [6] To note, Sanctuary and Tabernacle are often used interchangeably, as the English word Tabernacle stems from the Latin word tabernaculum meaning tent. But the Torah also refers to the Tabernacle as Mikdash, meaning “holy place” (25:8), and it also has another Hebrew name: Ohel Mo’ed, or “Tent of Meeting” (36:42) as it was a place where Moshe would go to ‘meet’, and receive instruction, from G-d. [7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.459 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.453 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.447 [10] Jacobson, Y. Yosef. “Gold, Wood, Gold: The Three Layers of Self.” [11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.455 – cited by Rashi, as found in the Midrash Tanchuma [12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.455 [13]Wisnefsky, “Wednesday: Holy Foolishness.” [14]Pirke Avot, Chapter 3:19 [15]The Talmud (Berachot 54a) addresses this point by asking why the Hebrew word for heart (lev) appears with two bets in a phrase from the Shema – “b’chol levavecha,” “serve G-d with all your heart.” [16] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.451 [17] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.451


The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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