Parashat Terumah 5779

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – 8 February 2019

Terumah: Where did the materials for the Mishkan come from?

One of the questions from this week’s sidrah that is constantly asked of me is where on earth the Israelites, having only recently made their escape or been redeemed from Egypt as a slave people, might have obtained the items that Moses was told to accept from the People to construct the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

As most of us will have been at one time in our lives, involved in a building project, I know that there are certain shops where certain items might best be obtained but one assumes that they were not established at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.

There are some logical attempts to explain this question. The first is most literal using the Biblical text (Ex 12:35-36): “The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed (vayishalu – from the root ‘to ask’ can be used in a variety of ways) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold and clothing. And the Eternal had disposed the Egyptians favourably toward the People, and let them have their request…” So one assumes that this is an abridged list: the silver and gold might easily be extended to include copper and the smalot, sometimes interpreted as being clothing but more usually as a bed covering, in other words a material, might be extended to include blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair according to the wealth of the Egyptian households from where hey were taking these items.

Other interpretations such as that from the Eastons Bible Dictionary look for logical explanations. The suggestion is that the route the Israelites took was at times not far from the Red Sea. Surely they could have caught a dugong, plentiful in the shallow waters and easy to catch, being a creature somewhat between a whale and a seal.

Then of course there are the more midrashic explanations where the origin of the materials is not of issue, rather the fact that they exist, only requiring the ingenuity of the mind and the craft of the hand to create with them.

“R. Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi said: When God told Moses, “Make me a Mishkan…” should he not have erected four pegs and stretched the Mishkan-tent over them?”

Somewhat pleasing for the minimalists amongst us, would not a simple structure have sufficed? The midrash continues:

“But it teaches you that God showed Moses up above a red fire, a green fire, a black fire and a white fire; an told him, “Make it according to the pattern that you are being shown on the mounain” (Ex 25:40). R. Berechya in the name of R. Batzla said: This is like a king who had a splendid garment made of jewels. He said to his personal friend, “Make me one just like it!” He answered, “My lord the king, can I make one like it?” the King replied, “I remain in my glory but you have your materials.” Similarly, Moses said to God, “My God, can I make anything like these fires!?” God replied, “Blue, purple, crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair…” God said, “If you make what is above below, I shall leave My place and descend and condense My Presence among them below.” (Numbers Rabbah 12:10).”

Wow, an elaborate, complicated plan drawn of coloured fires in the sky, a precursor of the blackboard, white board and now smart boards used in schools. Moses in God’s schoolroom is shown an incredible design an instructed to use mortal ingenuity and craft to create a glorious ‘home’ for God.

What does this midrash really intend us to conceive? I think it is really the absurdity that God needs a home or that God can be restricted to such a confined space. Any attempt at literal explanation misses the point.

We can get so involved in our building project trying to make sure that we bring the appropriate ingenuity – an interior designer – source the right materials – only Farrow and Ball paints and distressed furniture will really do – and the right craftsman – we can forget the purpose and intention of the project.

The Mishkan was successful because all the people were involved, each one bringing gifts – terumah – as they were so moved. These were a people, as Aviva Zornberg notes, who were used to building but the products had negative connotations. They were the arei miskenot – the store cities – of Egypt in their forced labour: of which the Talmud understands mesaknot – endangered them – or memaskenot – impoverished them. Perhaps the desire to create a Mishkan for God in finery, was their distinction between these building projects. The Mishkan was a symbol of their ability to create something of worth and beauty, placing God at the centre of the community.

May our own homes, live up to their rabbinic title of Mikdash m’at – being small sanctuaries. When we redecorate, engage in a building project or simply make a small cosmetic change, may we aware of all that we want our home to be, worthy of our household, all we wish to host in particular God.

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