Parshat Terumah

Torah Reading for Week of January 26, 2014 – February 1, 2014

by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer


About ten years ago, as part of our research for our Jewish Festival cookbook, my sister and I visited an Arab village in the Galilee where a local multi-generational family made goat cheese.  As we walked into their small home, an old, old woman, the grandmother, whispered frantically to her grandson, who then turned, a bit embarrassed, to me and said, “Please, if you don’t mind, my grandmother says that someone has put the evil eye on you, and she would like to remove it.”  Ever one for an intriguing multiethnic adventure, I agreed.

His grandmother then took a bunch of sage that grew wild on the rocky Galilean hills, lit it and, murmuring in Arabic, moving the sage from my head to my toes, “smudged” me.

A few minutes later, she announced the evil had been lifted. I was safe again. 

The ceremony touched me to the quick.  Here I was thousands of miles from the States, where the use of sage-smudging is well known in Native American rituals, not to mention as part of “New Age” practice, yet here, too, in the hills of the Galilee, sage was known for its healing properties.  As I discovered, the very name Salvia officinalis is a Latin translation of the Arabic, for 11 centuries ago Arab physicians already knew of its healing properties.

What could possibly be the relevance to our parasha?

T’rumah, offering an intricately detailed description of what is to be contained with the desert mikdash, specifies exactly how the menorah, “a lampstand of pure gold,” is to be constructed.  As the great Israeli scholar Nogah HaReuveni points out, the description perfectly matches that of the Palestinian or moriah sage plant that grows “from the Sinai desert to the mountains of Lebanon.”  “…an extraordinarily fragrant plant,” he tells us, which, when pressed on a plane,” matches the description in Exodus perfectly:   The menorah reflects the shape of the moriah plant that, in nature, releases its fragrance [re’akh ha-mor] in the heat of the day, when the sun is at its zenith.” In the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben-Levi (BT Shabbat 88b)  “As each commandment was spoken by the Holy One, Blessed Be He, the world filled with fragrance” (Nature in our Biblical Heritage, 126 ff).                              

This transmutation of one of the most fragrant and potentially healing plants of the land of Israel into the golden menorah of the ancient desert sanctuary can have a powerful resonance for us. It suggests that from the earliest moments of our tradition, the holy, the kadosh, is not conceived of as wholly Other: it is, indeed, rather, just that, a transmutation.  The healing sage which is most fragrant when the sun burns most hotly becomes the model for the Holy Light. The world of nature –which includes all of us, mortal animals of flesh and blood –  and the world of the holy are not in opposition; we ourselves can become holy as well.  For Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, human beings reflect the pattern of the Mikdash; by hallowing the limbs of our body, we can purify our heart and mind so that the Divine Presence can dwell within our very self. In the words of 16th century Safed poet Eleazor Azikri, it is “within my heart I shall build a mishkan to the brightness of God.” 

We Jews are too diverse a people to follow a single path for the building of that mishkan in our heart.  For many, the path is a strict adherence to the minutiae of every mitzah as interpreted by the sage they follow.  For others, the weekday morning prayer might offer a different way:  Ha may’eer la’aretz v’ledahrim ahleyhah b’rahamim,” say the words, “You illumine the earth and those who dwell there with compassion…”  Many of us have interpreted this line to mean that God sheds a compassionate light on all those of us who dwell on earth.  Yet, as cantor Danny Maseng has suggested, the words should be interpreted, “God sheds light on those who dwell with compassion on earth.”  Perhaps, though, it is both: to feel the holy compassion of God shining upon us, we are called to act with compassion in the world.  In the words of the hymn, may we all be prepared to be a sanctuary, “pure and simple, tried and true,” agents of light  and healing, illuminating our troubled, often too dark world.

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