The admonitions found in this week’s parashah to have Israel “take for me a terumah” or offering in Exodus 25:2, and “make me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them,” in verse 8, if nothing else, have for some time been grist for the fundraising mill to many development directors in synagogues and Jewish agencies.
This terumah or offering commences the process for building the mishkan, which is the holy tabernacle. Of course, the building of the mishkan, and the terumah can be simply understood as obligatory acts.
But, in addition, these acts can teach us much about how relationships are formed and maintained – interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. Our motivation for giving, as well as what motivates us to do anything for the other, not only molds those relationships, but also reflects how we create meaning and purpose in our own lives.
The great modern biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz presents an explanation of the passage from the standpoint of whether or not there was a preceding act which would have precipitated or necessitated the need for b’nai yisrael – the children of Israel – to offer such gifts to God. The question is more specifically framed as whether or not the mishkan served as atonement for the deed of the golden calf.
Midrash Rabbah Shemoth, in Exodus 33:3, employs a verse from Song of Songs 5:2 to suggest that b’nai yisrael were in a state of spiritual lethargy after the golden calf, and subsequently awakened by God’s invitation for them to make the offering and build the tabernacle.
Rashi sequences the events in a slightly different manner, suggesting that the terumah was offered after Israel had atoned for its sin of the golden calf on the Day of Atonement, yet the interpretation of the events is essentially the same. According to Nehama Leibowitz, Rashi and other interpreters see the tabernacle as God’s concession to human frailty as illustrated by the golden calf.
Arguably, there is something problematic in this sequence of events since this week’s passage precedes the golden calf. How could we atone for a sin not yet committed? The concise response is as Rashi suggests – there is no chronological order in the Torah.
It is certainly true that we often suspend historical chronology to imbue our history with a higher religious purpose – e.g., we were once slaves in Egypt and we all stand at Mount Sinai. Nahum Sarna also suggests in “Exploring Exodus” that our Scripture is essentially a document of religious faith, rather than a chronological historical account. A somewhat more aggressive suggestion is that God provided the cure in anticipation of the disease.
I am not one to ascribe to a chronologically assiduous reading of Torah. However, I am troubled by a reading of the passage that sees our contributions to God as relegated to the status of quid pro quo for past sins or that creating the opportunity for us to make an offering of something of value to Hashem was an afterthought.
Samson Raphael Hirsch culls from the Hebrew word “terumah” the “reish-vov-mem” as meaning to be raised above something or separated for a higher purpose. And, in Exodus 25:2, Hirsch connects the word “yidvenu” – will be moved to give – to the word “nataf,” which is to flow out from within. He sees the act of offering in stark contrast to being a responsive atoning act for the golden calf, as an offering performed with the most complete freedom of will. Hirsch finds the meaning of the mishkan to be simply the mutual covenant-relationship between Hashem and Israel. And, Hirsch said it is about more than the mere upkeep of the mishkan, but about giving over our lives to the Divine Torah.
Hirsch has aptly observed that giving our lives over to meet the Torah, which is to say to meet the needs of the other – the other being both our relationship with God and our interpersonal relationships – is, rather than an act of personal restriction, the most freeing of acts. I was once taught that of our many needs, the greatest need is the need to be needed, to know that our life has a greater cosmic purpose and meaning than simply meeting our own needs. That is the meaning for us in building the tabernacle: to know that while we seek the satisfaction of our endless needs from the master of the universe, it is that very God, also, who is needed by us. May we always be blessed with knowing that we are needed by God and by each other and that our lives are imbued with that sense of great cosmic meaning.
Congregation B’nai Chaim offers services to Jewish and interfaith families as well as singles every Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 a.m., respectively and is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit www.bnaichaim.com.