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Parashat Terumah

February 25, 2009

Doug Alpert

This week’s parashah, Terumah,is arguably one of the less enthralling parashot in the Torah. God instructs Moshe Rabeinu, Moses Our Teacher, regarding the building of the Mishkan-the Holy Tabernacle. The ensuing instructions are provided in exhaustive detail challenging the reader, as well as many of our great Biblical exegetes to derive meaning and purpose from the mere form of the text-i.e., that it is so detailed, much less as to the content of the instructions. For me form does matter, and it says much about who we are as a people. (And besides, as this is the parashah of my Bar Mitzvah I do confess to a special affinity for Terumah. Probably a good early lesson for me on why there is no parcel of Torah that is devoid of great meaning, purpose and wealth.)

One of many areas in which this level of detailed instruction plays out is in the specifications for the Menorah. (Shemot 25: 31-34) The great commentator Nechama Leibowitz with her acumen for synthesizing and making sense of the voluminous and important exegesis that preceded her, frames the perspectives on the details of the Menorah as one with the Rambam, as rationalist, on one side of the interpretive spectrum, and Abravanel, with his penchant for allegoric interpretation, in an opposing stance.

Maimonides, as rationalist, while seeing the seemingly irrational details of the Menorah as imbued with purpose and Divine Wisdom, also sees futility in efforts to justify and explain every such detail. “There is no point in asking why the Menorah had seven branches and not six. The Torah had to specify one number or another.” The Rambam bypasses the details, simply remarking on how the illumination of the Menorah, a continual light concealed by a curtain, makes a deep psychological impact.

Abravanel seeks allegoric explanations for the Mishkan. For example he states that “man can only be a lamp of pure gold through the cleansing and refining effect of suffering. It was made of one piece and not of separate ones pieced together, symbolizing the unity of all man’s parts…” Abravanel accepted the human intellect, but believed it could not compete with what could be achieved through revelation, Torah and prophecy.

Whether you see the Mishkan from the purview of the Rambam’s forest or Abravanel’s trees, what they both preserve is the sense of the Divine Presence contained within both the Mishkan, and any discussion thereof. Which is to say (somewhat allegorically I suppose) that possibly, we find God to be most prevalent in the smallest of details that comprise our existence. For Jews we are really much more about the God we find in the Mishkan, rather than holding out for the God of miracles-e.g., the parting of a sea. Put another way, we find glory in the details, and we are all about sweating the little stuff.

This dynamic is well illustrated in our liturgy. It is during this part of the year, from Shemini Atzeret until Pesah that we pray within the Amidah: “mashiv ha-ru’ah u’morid ha-gashem.” This addition to the Amidah is our request that God provide rain to Eretz Yisrael. So it begs the question as to why we do not make the request throughout the year. One would think that Israel could stand to have a little rain in July, and would probably welcome and find use for the extra moisture. However, we limit our request to the rainy season in Israel. We do not seek to go outside the natural order, or, more aptly stated, the Divine Plan, for a great miracle of bringing rain at a time and season which does not normally yield much rain. If there is anything that we see which is miraculous in this process it is the miracle and wonder of how the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, works within a Divine Plan that would establish a season of precipitation to nourish our crops, and to nourish us.

This sense of wonder about every aspect of G-d’s world, what Abraham Joshua Heschel would refer to as a “radical amazement” with the Divine dictates that we remain aware that wherever we are present physically, and in every interpersonal encounter there is an opportunity to encounter the Divine. In that sense Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on this week’s parashah speaks of the badim, the poles of the ark and the requirement (one of our 613 mitzvot) that they are never to be removed from the ark. In this way we are assured of being able to carry Torah wherever we may sojourn. By having Torah with us, we will always be in a state of readiness to encounter and engage with the Divine Presence.


Doug Alpert is a rabbinical student at AJR.