“Staying at our tables can lengthen our years…”
By Rabbi Toba August, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
Terumah is a dream Parsha for architects and designers with its detailed specifications for creating the furnishings of the Mishkan: the desert sanctuary.
“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.” (Ex 25:8-9)
With this command, Moses and the Israelites began both a capital campaign and a construction project – collecting gold, silver and precious gifts for the building of the portable temple. Nachmanides, a 13th century Torah commentator believed that we kept the experience of Mt. Sinai alive by building the Tabernacle and that the “mystery of this structure is that G-d’s Presence – the Shechinah, which ‘abode’ (shakhan) publicly on Mt Sinai, would discreetly do the same in the Tabernacle (mishkan).”
This evocative concept quickly seems to dissipate for us, the readers, with the ensuing excruciating minutia for creating the ark, the menorah, the table for the showbread, curtains, enclosures and other accessories. Where do we find G-d in all these details?
I do not know, but there are inspiring teachings about the ark and the menorah, and our tradition believes each fixture is filled with G-d. In fact, I learned a spiritual teaching about the “shulchan”, the table made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold which accommodated the 12 loaves of bread that were displayed for an entire week until Shabbat. What can be inspirational about a table?
First, let us envision our own dining room tables. Think about your family, friends and guests with whom you have shared Shabbat and holiday meals. Remember the holy moments of relationships, laughter, meaningful conversations, and kindness that were experienced. We have all performed the mitzvah of “Hachnasat Orchim” – inviting people to our homes in times of need, and included them into our compassionate community.
Bahya ben Asher, a 13th century rabbi, wrote in his Torah commentary that the table was as important as the mizbayach (the altar for sacrifices), because you feed the hungry there.
He described a custom in France where people used the wood of their dining room tables to make the coffin they would be buried in! Macabre and morbid? Perhaps. But think about the lesson.
Rabbeinu Bahya noted that a person takes nothing with them from this world except the Tzedakah that we gave and the goodness that he or she demonstrated around their own tables. “Long after the food has been cleared away, it is the symbolism of the table and its kindnesses that sustain our people.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book A Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 2, states that in part this custom, of using our tables for our coffins, is to “remind” G-d of our charitable deeds, such as serving food to the poor at our table.
In the Talmud (Ber 54b) one of three things that will prolong your days is “Ha’ma’arich al Shulchanu..” – One who stays long at the table…because perhaps a poor man will come and he will provide for him. And also, because we will pray, study, and discuss religious matters at our tables.
The table in the Mishkan is likened to our own tables and, as such, we should always remember that the only things we own are our deeds, the way we act towards one another, and behave in the world.