Parashat Terumah 5778

Rabbi Sandra Kviat – 17 February 2018

Lagom T’rumah

‘Lagom är bäst’ – the right amount is best – the Swedes say. As a Danish child visiting Sweden several times a year to see my mother’s family, I grew up thinking that lagom (pronounced laah-gum) was a negative, something about holding back, not taking too much, not being too much.

“Often loosely translated as ‘everything in moderation’ or ‘not too much and not too little’, lagom is about finding a balance that works for you. Water can be lagom warm. You can work a lagom amount. Trousers can be a lagom fit”.

In this world of constant noise and action, of being plugged in, of running faster so to not be left behind, it seems our only option is to sometimes pull the plug and completely stop. And yet, these brief moments of spiritual, physical and technological detox only last a short while before we are back in the rat race. And then we have the option of ‘lagom’, which indicates than instead of this constant movement between the two extremes of on/off, or ‘work hard/play hard’ as its sometimes described as, we can find a median that is sustainable, in our work lives, our homes lives and our religious lives. And even when we have overdone it, and ventured into the extreme, we return to lagom; If you’ve ever been to a Swedish midsummer celebration or drunk a cup of their (exceedingly strong) freshly brewed coffee, you’ll know what I mean. It’s just that they won’t punish themselves with abstinence afterwards. The Swede will simply continue enjoying everything in moderation (until the next celebration comes along!).

And in this week’s parasha, which begins the whole Tabernacle process, its the lack of lagom that is striking. The excessiveness of the detailed descriptions of how to build the tabernacle, 11 chapters, or ⅓ of the whole book of Exodus, apart from the Golden Calf story, is exhausting, obsessive and can seem over the top.

These chapters dealing with the minute details of what gifts (terumah) the Israelites should offer (gold, silver, copper, blue purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, animal skins, acacia wood, oil for lighting, incense, lapis lazuli and more), how to create an ark, with what materials, what kind of cover, and cherubs, where to put the cherubs, a table, a lampstand (menorah), a tent for the tabernacle, how to make the planks, and the bars, and rings, and curtains, and screen, an outer altar, an enclosure, etc. And the following parashiot goes on to describe the oil, what the priests should wear and so on.

These descriptions are a far cry from lagom.

However, behind the endless descriptions of ‘stuff’, lies another truth. Having experienced standing at Sinai with everything that would have entailed for each person, the main question then becomes – how to keep that feeling alive, how to keep it present? And so, the text instructs us, it can be done in three ways; through sacred deeds (acts of justice and compassion), through observance of sacred time (shabbat and holy days) and through sacred space (physical space representing the presence of God).

The rabbis would, in time, advocate all three but in a lagom mix, to help us live a balanced life.

And so in this light, perhaps the rabbis did know something about lagom, something about finding just the right balance between sacred deeds, time and space. Perhaps a lagom life is not just for Swedes after all.

Share this Thought for the Week