This week’s parsha is Terumah. It tells of God’s mandate to the Jews to build the Mishkan, a temporary, movable sanctuary, a Tabernacle, to be used as B’nai Yisrael travels through the wilderness. God wanted a place that would be the focus of his Shechina, the holy Presence. The portion reads almost as a blueprint for construction, including precise measurements and calls for donation of specific materials to create this sacred space. In some cases, the materials used are no longer available today or even decipherable. Our challenge is to glean a spiritual, contemporary lesson from these rather dry, archaic instructions.
Terumah follows on the heels of Mishpatim, the Heaven’s civil code of behavior. What connection can we draw between those laws of monetary integrity and this week’s mandate to build a Mishkan?
Perhaps the Torah is telling us that any tzedakah we give must be from monies and goods we have acquired by dealing honestly in business. What we give must rightfully be ours before we donate it to a holy cause. I’m reminded of a large donation given to the Jewish Theological Seminary by a person later convicted of engaging in arbitrage violations. These monies were summarily returned by the Seminary, as well they should have been.
This concept of justice in the giving of tzedakah is buttressed by the prophet Isaiah who prefaces his call for charitable deeds with an admonition about justice. He states, “So said God, ‘Safeguard justice and do charity’”. First justice, then charity. Elsewhere he declares, “And justice lagged behind, and charity remained standing from afar.” Once again, we see this connection. When justice is not pursued, charity is not possible.
The rabbis tell us that the Mishkan served to atone for the great sin of the construction of the Golden Calf. You may say, we haven’t even read about this sorry event, but this out-of-orderness is a prime example of the rule, Ayne Mookdahm Oo’m’oochar BaTorah, that is, that there is no linear chronology in the Torah. The Golden Calf had happened already, and God is giving the Jews a means of repentance by calling for the construction of the Mishkan.
The actual finished products of the Tabernacle, including the Aron (the Ark), the Mizbayach (Incense Altar), and the Shulchan (the Table), were all examples of Hiddur Mitzvah, of doing mitzvot in the most beautiful way and with the most beautiful objects.
Let me share with you some of the beautiful details the Torah gives us.
The Aron, for example, was built from acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold, and with a golden rim around its border. It consisted of three chests. The innermost was gold. It fitted into a slightly larger chest made of the wood, sort of like Russian babas. The second box fit into the largest outer chest of gold. In this way, the wooden box was complemented from within and without by gold, as HaShem commanded.
We are told that the Ark, the beautiful vessel for housing of the luchot haBrit, the engraved stones of the Covenant, was built before the Mishkan itself-so important was it. Commentaries suggest that the aron represents the Torah. Just as Torah , according to Midrash, preceded the Creation of the world, so did God command that the aron be fashioned before the rest of the Mishkan.
Continuing the metaphor of the aron to the Torah, we see that gold is used because Torah is likened to gold. The middle, wooden chest corresponds to the description we use for Torah when we lovingly replace it in our aronim, our Arks, that of Atz Chaim, a Tree of Life.
The ark, the altar and the table were all made of acacia wood. As we said, the Hebrew word for this wood is Shittim. Rabbeina Bachya, a medieval commentator on the Torah, tells us that this word forms an acronym for the words, Shalom, Tovah, Yeshuah, and Mechilah-PEACE, GOODNESS, SALVATION and FORGIVENESS. These four wonderful blessings were the gifts the Jews enjoyed through the use of these holy furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan, and later, the Holy Temple.
According to some, the three holy objects represent the three crowns conferred upon the Jews by God:
• The Crown of Torah, represented by the aron
• The Crown of Kehuna, of priesthood, represented by the altar for incense
• And the Crown of Malchut, monarchy, represented by the table for the Showbread
In seeking to understand these three crowns, we might be inclined to see them as equal in merit. Or, we might think that the crown of Malchut, as representative of Kingship, is the highest. But both Malchut and Kehuna result from accidents of birth and thereby exclude many people. For this reason, it seems to me that the Crown of Torah ranks above the other two. The opportunity to become a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar, is accessible to everyone. As proof texts for this statement, we see that the commandments concerning the Mizbayach, the altar and the shulchan, the table are in the singular, “and you shall make them,” since access to Kehuna and royalty is restricted. But the sentence about the Aron reads, “and THEY shall make it”, showing that God wants the entire nation to aspire to be Torah scholars.
What about our times, when we no longer have these furnishings and vessels? How can we continue to receive these gifts?
The same Rabbeinu Bachya answers us by citing a passage from the Talmud, “Now that the Beis HaMikdash is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through his, or her, own table.” Which table atones for us and brings us blessings now that we don’t have the Holy Temple? Our own dining room table! If we feed the poor, welcome the traveler and host guests at our table, then any table becomes our own personal altar of atonement.
Rabbeinu Bachya concludes on this awesome note, “There is a custom among the pious people of France to construct their coffins from wood taken from their dining-room tables.” We can just see the imagery. The people who have known the departed, who have sat and shared his table, come to his funeral and see him buried in a coffin that looks exactly like his dining room table!
The message is clear. A person takes nothing from this world to the next world, Olam HaBah, except for the Torah learned and the mitzvot performed, the tzedaka given and the goodness shared with others around the dining room table.