Parshat Terumah

By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03, AJRCA Professor of Liturgy

The first really big, beautiful, Jewish book I purchased back in the 1980’s was The Tabernacle, by Moshe Levine.  I had been borrowing it from the Hebrew Union College library each year when the Torah portions about the Mishkan were being read, beginning with Terumah (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19).

I finally was able to purchase my own copy at the Roth bookstore on Pico Blvd in L.A., and have been referring to it ever since to show the illustrations, diagrams, and models of the Israelites’ portable place of desert worship and all its architectural and ceremonial components. The book is a treasure, with detailed color plates showing the golden ark and menorah,  woven curtain partitions,  ram skin coverings, linen hangings, acacia wood showbread table and incense altar covered with gold, washing laver of brass, colorful vestments of the priests, and explanations of how the posts and sockets were connected together with no nails or hammers as tools.

Terumah is all about building and creating a beautiful architectural sanctuary and ceremonial objects. How did it get built with all of these rare and colorful materials?  The Holy One actually had a specific list and blueprint that the Children of Israel were to follow:

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it (Exodus 24:1-7, 25:1).

Terumah is not just a gift. There is a hint in the resh vav mem letters within the word that suggest a lifting up, a raising the material offered to a new level and holy purpose.  That phrase, Ve’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham reminds me of the fundraising campaign based on that verse that led to our building the beautiful synagogue in Sedona.  The idea was emphasized that if we build the sacred space, God will dwell… not in IT, but rather within US.

UP to now in the biblical narrative, God heard our cries, parted the sea, delivered us to freedom, gave us the Torah, and now it is our turn to offer some of the bounty for which we are grateful back to the Source of All.  The people willingly and generously donated their highly developed skills in assembling, weaving, constructing, metal and wood-working, as well as the needed materials.

In a synagogue there are so many needs, yes for money, but just as much, if not more, a need for dedicated members who bring their talents and skills to the success of the life of the organization, and the satisfaction of raising up our own abilities and resources for the combined working of the congregation.

When we read Terumah it is easy to be dazzled by the description of the ceremonial objects and architecture of the Mishkan; it is helpful to show examples and models such as shown in the well-researched book The Tabernacle; but the real message is reminding each of us, and our members, how vital their unique presence is, and how the soul of even the most gorgeous edifice is only a shell meant to contain a felt Divine Presence.  Our generous raising up of offerings of Terumah — time, talent, treasure, and trust — creates a Mishkan of sacred space.

May we open our hearts so that the Eternal One can dwell within us.