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Torah Sparks

February 25, 2012 – 2 Adar 5772

Annual: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 (Etz Hayim p. 485; Hertz p. 326)
Triennial: Exodus 26:1 – 26:30 (Etz Hayim p. 491; Hertz p. 330)
Haftarah: I Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (Etz Hayim p. 500; Hertz p. 336)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Parashat Terumah opens with a call for Israelites whose hearts so move them to contribute gifts for the construction and upkeep of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is described in detail, along with many of the accoutrements and ritual objects used there. Among the items used in construction and decoration of the Tabernacle are a variety of exotic materials, such as dolphin skins and lapis lazuli, for example. Among the appurtenances of the sanctuary described in our parashah are the ephod and breastplate used by the priest; the ark, together with its cover adorned with cherubim; and the sanctuary table. Gold bowls, ladles, and jugs were for use on the table, which is where the bread offering was placed. The seven-branch menorah that stood in the tabernacle now serves as the symbol and the official seal of the state of Israel. The brass altar and its implements also are described.

The construction of the tabernacle itself, which was based on the design revealed to Moses atop Mount Sinai, is described with attention to fine detail. Every loop, plank, peg, socket, and hook is specified. Curtains and screens separate the Holy of Holies from the surrounding sanctuary and courtyard.

Theme #1: “This Little Rite of Mine”

“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 of one piece.” (Exodus 25:31)

Derash: Study

“The lampstand represents the epicycles of the planets.” (Abarbanel)

“The terminology in the lampstand passage is replete with botanical terms, and its branched shape also implies a tree-like form. These features may signify the fertility provided by God or the idea of the eventual rise of a Davidic ruler as a ‘shoot’ or ‘branch.’ The form may even allude to the female aspect of God’s presence, for female deities in the ancient Near East – such as the Canaanite god Asherah – may have been represented by sacred trees.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“The doing is the ultimate. Make yourself into a menorah. How? Take a hammer and start pounding. By making our will God’s will we shape ourselves into a divine luminary.” (Rabbi Eli Friedman)

“The shape of the lampstand – the trunk with its branches extending on either side – unmistakably evokes the image of a tree. Quite possibly, it represents the tree of life. The inflorescence of the almond tree (see verse 33 – JHP) most certainly bears symbolic value, for that tree (Heb. shaked) is the earliest springflowering plant in the Land of Israel… The stem sh-k-d means ‘to be watchful, wakeful, vigilant’; thus, the almond flower is a symbol of life renewed and sustained. Finally, the lights constitute the most powerful symbol of all, for light intimates both life itself and the presence of the Giver of life.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

Questions for Discussion

The menorah certainly is rich in symbolism! Which of the various interpretations given here – the planetary system, fertility, the feminine aspect of God, the Davidic line, personal refinement, the tree of life , life itself, vigilance, God – might have motivated the selection of the menorah as a symbol of the modern state of Israel? What other characteristics of the menorah (the very fact of its extreme antiquity, for example) make it an apt expression of the Zionist dream?

Why was it important that the menorah be crafted from a single piece of gold? How might this relate to some of the interpretations of the menorah above?

Oddly, there are no dimensions or size requirements provided for the menorah. How do you envision this central furnishing of the Tabernacle? Why leave such details to the imagination, especially when precision seems to be the goal of these instructions? In what other areas of Jewish life and observance are individual expression, personal style, and creativity left to our judgment?

In what other contexts do we associate light with the presence of God?

What do you make of Abarbanel’s interpretation of the menorah as evoking the “epicycles of the planets”? How might the presence of such a symbol in the Tabernacle be especially compelling to 21st century Jews?

Theme #2: “I’m Gonna Let it Shrine”

“Then set up the Tabernacle according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain.” (Exodus 26:30)

Derash: Study

“‘Set up the Tabernacle.’ That is, have your experts do so. Or perhaps it meant that Moses himself was to set up the Tabernacle the first time – with the help of others, for it took many hands to set up the Tabernacle.” (Ibn Ezra)

“The design for the tabernacle came from above, but the wherewithal came from below, freely tendered without a trace of compulsion. The creation of sacred space required the consent of those to be served by it. Holiness cannot be fabricated and foisted in the face of massive dissent. The key to drawing God into the midst of a faith community is the personal engagement of its members. The popular voluntarism that enabled Moses to erect Israel’s mobile sanctuary is the operative paradigm for the American Jewish community.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

“God showed Moses either ‘blueprints,’ pictures, or a model of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is not to be a product of human creativity but must conform exactly to divine specifications (‘One cannot approach God except [by the ways that] He commands [Judah Halevi, Kuzari].’” (Jewish Study Bible/Oxford)

“Although I cannot build a tabernacle with a cover of pure gold and a table of acacia wood, I will try to make my home a tabernacle, suffused with God’s light. I will try to make my life a tabernacle as I try to open myself to God’s blessings every moment.” (Richard Ellis)

Questions for Discussion

Does Ibn Ezra mean that the image of the Tabernacle revealed to Moses was so complex that it required many people working together to assemble it? Or does he mean to say that the process of cooperation, teamwork, and community participation was an integral aspect of God’s revelatory message? How would such a teaching find application in our own experience of Jewish life and community?

In analyzing the Tabernacle, Chancellor Schorsch asserts, “Holiness cannot be fabricated” but relies on our willing engagement. What steps can (or do) we take to achieve holiness, to transform our congregations into “kehilot kodesh” – holy communities – and our synagogues (and homes) into truly sacred centers? How else is the Tabernacle an apt symbol for the American Jewish community?

In what aspects of Jewish life is it accurate to say that we, too, must rely on God’s “blueprint” – on divine commands – and when is personal expression and individual creativity indispensable? Notwithstanding the Kuzari’s comment, how does the description of the Tabernacle provide a balanced and nuanced model for this question?

Both the menorah (see Rabbi Friedman’s statement, above) and the Tabernacle (a la Richard Ellis) have been used as models for personal spiritual refinement and individual experience of God. How do these symbols differ? Which aspects of these models of the individual’s religious quest do you find personally compelling?

Historic Note

Parashat Terumah, read on February 25, 2012, describes the construction of the Tabernacle in vivid detail, based on explicit divine plans revealed to Moses at Sinai. Christopher Wren, architect of London’s magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral, died on February 25, 1723, at the age of 90. The black marble floor beneath the main dome of the cathedral, Wren’s masterpiece, bears a memorial inscription in Latin, reading in part: “LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE” – “Reader, if you seek his monument - look around you.”

Halachah L’Maaseh

Jewish law prohibits creation or manufacture of a seven branch menorah in imitation of the one that was prescribed for use in the Tabernacle (See Talmud Rosh Hashanah 24a), notwithstanding the many violations of this principle in synagogue and Jewish home décor! The Meiri (ad loc) rules that the prohibition is only concerning an exact replica of the Tabernacle’s menorah, but that models that deviate in any way from the biblical description are permitted. Other authorities prohibit manufacture of any seven branch candelabrum of any design and of any metal (Bechor Shor ad loc), even if it is designed to hold only candles rather than oil (Pitchei Teshuva to Yoreh Deah 141:14-15). The creation and use of a porcelain, wood, or glass menorah does not violate this prohibition (Mishpetei Uziel Yoreh Deah 18). It also is permissible to use an electric menorah (Yabia Omer 1:12; Yechaveh Daat 3:61).

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