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Parashat Terumah 5782

February 4, 2022

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

My original D’var Torah which I wrote on Sunday afternoon appears below. However, on Sunday evening many in our AJR community gathered (via Zoom) to share memories of our teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Mann z”l. Dr. Ora Horn Prouser as our teacher and Academic Dean shared a D’var Torah which, like my D’var Torah referenced the poles of the Ark contained within the Mishkan – our Holy Tabernacle. With that experience I would feel remiss if I did not dedicate this D’var Torah to the memory of Rabbi Mann. As it was said on Sunday evening, Rabbi Mann was not only an extraordinary teacher of Torah, but someone who through his gentle and generous spirit lived Torah.

So how did I draw the short straw. In its droning on and on with instructions for building the Mishkan – the Holy Tabernacle – Parashat Terumah is arguably the most boring Parashah in the entire Torah. (See Ellen Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, at p. 59). This is not new news for me or the first time I drew this particular straw. Parashat Terumah was my Bar Mitzvah Parashah and my rabbi, Rabbi Morris Margolies z”l, may have also mentioned on that Shabbos morning that the Parashah, at least on its face was something less than compelling.

Over the years I have learned to embrace the boredom, feeling something bordering on obligation to be an advocate for this oft maligned piece of Torah. (I’ll admit to being a bit onery in doubling down on something others are prone to dismiss.) All of which is to say that we live our Judaism in the details. As Judaism is a behavior based (as opposed to faith based) theology we create our sacred relationships with G-d, and with each other in the details of how we live our lives. My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Berger, describes the pious Jew as one who seems to have G-d in front of them in everything they do, and everyone they meet.

One detail upon which to focus is the construction of the Ark within the Mishkan. “The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15) Amongst all of the other furniture that was part of the Mishkan to which poles are attached, the prohibition against removal of the poles is only applicable to the Ark. According to Rashi this prohibition was “forever.”

Nehama Leibowitz presents varying explanations regarding the prohibition against removing the poles from the Ark. Some are technical. G-d wanted to minimize the handling of the Ark on account of its holiness. The poles were difficult to remove even if removal was not prohibited.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch finds a loftier purpose for the prohibition.  Not removing the poles insured and was symbolic of the mobility of the Torah. “Torah is not parochial, restricted to the particular country where the Temple is situated. Independence of place is an essential characteristic of the Torah… Israel’s material and spiritual fulfillment are inextricably linked to the land of Israel. But this is not the case with the Torah.” (Hirsch cited by Nehama Leibowitz in New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, pp. 492-493).   In this way Torah becomes accessible to all. That Torah is not limited to Israel increases our standing and our obligation as Jews in the diaspora. We make space for Divine presence wherever we happen to be.

Likewise, where it states in the Parashah that “they shall make an Ark of acacia wood….” (Exodus 25:10) Midrash explains why it references the third person “they” and not in the second person. It is so that “…everyone [can be] involved in the making of the Ark so that they will all merit to have an attachment to Torah.” (Shemot Rabbah, 34:2)

So a seemingly minor detail; the Halakhah prohibiting the removal of the poles from the Ark becomes central to our understanding of Torah as small “d” democratic, and not limited to those who ostensibly project some sort of elite status. Wherever we carry the Ark Torah comes with us. And when we consider for whom the gift of Torah is intended, we seek to define the us in a very broad and expansive way.

Finally, in addressing the exhaustively detailed instructions for building the Mishkan, Ellen Davis remarks, the Mishkan “is a microcosm, a Divinely ordered world [mirroring the creation story] emerging out of the ‘formless void’ of Egypt, of wilderness, of Israel’s own idolatry. Perhaps that is why the tabernacle account lingers so long on detail, in order to show precisely what kind of work is eligible for blessing. In faithful imitation of G-d’s own work, this work is Sabbath-oriented, proceeds from a willing heart, and eschews excess. In its respect for both persons and material resources, it is radically unlike both Egyptian slavery and the dominant work practices of our own industrial culture.” (Davis at p. 61)
Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.