Home > Divrei Torah > Terumah


March 23, 2006

By Peggy de Prophetis

This D’var Torah is dedicated to Rabbi Stephen Grundfast, an AJR alumnus,

who taught me Torah trope and set me on this path.

‘You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be
made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and
petals shall be one piece. Six branches shall issue from one side of
the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.
On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms,
each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three
cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, so for
all six branches issuing from the lampstand.’ (Ex. 25:31’33)

Parashat Terumah is a blueprint for the construction of the
Tabernacle and its fittings, provided by the Lord in His words to
Moses. The description of each item begins with ‘You shall make . . .’
and continues with detailed instruction of designs, materials, and
construction. We do not find out who is to do this work until five
chapters later in Parashat Ki Tissa in which we read that the
Lord speaks to Moses and appoints ‘Bezalel son of Ur, son of Hur, of
the tribe of Judah’ and endows him ‘with a divine spirit of skill,
ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work
in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve
wood’to work in every kind of craft,’ and to Bezalel he assigns an
assistant and other helpers whom He endows with skill. (Ex. 31:1’6) The
materials for construction are gifts from the Israelites.

Never do we read anything about the workers and their hard
work’their hours of labor, the pressure to finish, their concern to do
a good job. This absence of description of physical toil, this almost
magical leap from the great plan to its brilliant execution struck me
particularly because I found a note in my Chumash reminding me that the lines from Parashat Terumah

quoted above are the very first lines of Torah that I chanted in
public. I am reminded that I required hours of previous study of trope
in general, then copying, and cutting out each word of these lines and
pasting them on paper, leaving room for my handwritten musical notation
of the appropriate trope. And of course, I was nervous about being
accurate. As a CPA I was used to the requirement to be accurate. But
reading the sacred words of Torah raised the requirement of accuracy
for me to an even higher level.

So why with such stringent requirements for the construction of the
Tabernacle does the Bible not dwell on man’s efforts to build and
decorate it? After all, hard work is seen as a virtue. It is the
metaphor of choice used throughout Pirkei Avot for the study of Torah.

An easy answer is to say that this is a case of what accountants
would call proper matching’that is, where there is holy work to be
done, there are holy workers to do it. The foreman on this job was the
Lord. Those who executed the Lord’s blueprint for the Tabernacle were
endowed with wondrous, even miraculous skill. The portrayal of
straining muscles, sweating bodies, and workplace accidents would have
been totally out of keeping with the nature of the holy task.

But, perhaps this parashah is coming to teach us something less literal, for it is unlikely that the exact circumstances in Parashat Terumah
would ever repeat themselves in our times. In our times the Lord does
not talk directly to us as, the Torah says, He talked to Moses about
sacred construction projects. We are building synagogues, not portable
tabernacles. The Lord does not solicit gifts for our synagogues. We
make the Yom Kippur pitch for synagogue funds. We hope for gifts, but
we do not expect them with the confidence that God expressed in Parashat Terumah.

What then can we learn from this parashah, where the
construction of the Tabernacle is both inspired and effortless? We can
understand it as a metaphor’that any work or any act that we do for the
sake of kedushah (holinesss), whether it is volunteering in a
synagogue or hospital or hospice, whether it is cleaning and cooking
and getting ready for Shabbat, whether it is planting trees to protect
our water tables and prevent erosion, or reading to a person who no
longer can do that for herself, and especially, when it is preparing to
read Torah; every one of these acts should be a gift freely given. We
should not allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed by the physical or
emotional effort it takes to accomplish them. In Parashat Terumah it says that the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, daber el b’nei yisrael v’yiqchu lee t’roomah me’et kol eesh asher yidvenoo leebo tiqkchu et t’roomati
(‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts
for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.’ Ex. 25:2) We should
keep in mind that when we do acts of loving kindness we are doing holy
work. We are giving gifts and we should let our hearts be moved.