This week's Torah reading, T'rumah, is terrific. (Even though it has a bad reputation as repetitive and boring!) Not only is it my bar mitzvah Torah portion but it also reminds of one of Judaism's core principles: Torah both inspires us with wisdom and also empowers us to interpret its truths, applying them uniquely in our own day and age.
Inspired and Empowered to Act
I was privileged last night to attend the first meeting of our new learning circle on race and racism. Eighteen temple members joined on Zoom to begin a discussion about equity, intersectionality, white privilege, and race. The group was designed for parents raising Jewish children; and as we introduced ourselves, a common theme was raised again and again: The issues of race and racism are too complex for even us grown-ups to understand, so how are we supposed to teach anything meaningful to our kids? What we’d all love is for some prophet to share with us The Answer so that we can finally act with confidence that we’re doing the right thing. But of course, that’s not going to happen. So we strive to do the best we can with the people we trust to help us find our way.
These challenges uncovered in our discussion group relate to a key theme in this week’s Torah portion. We start reading this week the lengthy set of instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the Israelites’ portable wilderness sanctuary, also known as the Tabernacle. We read:
Ex. 25:1 The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them. 3 And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; 4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; 5 tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; 6 oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; 7 lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. 8 And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. 9 Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.
These nine verses are electric, truly thrilling. At least, they are when we recall their place in the story of our people.
After escaping slavery and passing through the Sea of Reeds, the Children of Israel encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. God addressed them directly with the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrews affirmed their everlasting commitment to a life of divine service. Last week’s parashah outlined principles of a just society necessary to build a new nation in the Promised Land, and our people prepared to embark on their sacred journey with God, as it were, watching over them from heaven.
But now—the people are told—an overwhelming surprise: The Creator of the Universe, Master of the Flood, Protector of Sarah and Abraham, the Annihilator of Egypt is going to dwell among them. All the Israelites have to do is build an appropriate home.
The blueprint for this dwelling seems to unfold in the following chapters. We read lists of the materials, shapes, and dimensions of the Mishkan’s furnishings as well as the garments to be worn by its officers, the priests. It would appear that following these instructions is all that’s needed to house God in the people’s midst.
But it’s not that straighforward. As detailed as these instructions are, they are not sufficient for actually building the sanctuary.
Take the menorah, for example. The text specifies that six branches issue from the sides of the lampstand, three on each side. Then we read:
25:34 And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals: 35 a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the second pair of branches, and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches; so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.
To translate into English, we are told clearly that the menorah should have four flowers carved into it. One flower where each of the three pairs of branches meet on the lampstand.
[SLIDE of menorah pointing to the three intersections of branches on the lampstand.]
One, two, three… Where is the fourth flower supposed to go? According to this design, it’s here [show on image]. But the text is silent on the matter. What we see is the product of necessary interpretation.
Remember, Gold told Moses, “I [will] show you the pattern of the Tabernacle” (Ex. 25:9). Translating the vision into reality—including filling in the gaps and adding the finishing touches—requires human creativity. That’s why, later on in our text, skilled artisans are enlisted to build the Mishkan. The Tabernacle is not a piece of IKEA furniture – it is a work of art that depends upon human ingenuity to bring it to life.
This passage is illustrative of the Torah as a whole and, indeed, our entire tradition. The Torah was never intended to be a law code or an instruction manual, even for something as specific as the Mishkan. Rather, the Torah is meant to inspire us to act, to draw us together in sacred community so that, relying on one another’s passions, insights, and strengths, we may join together to create something divine on earth. As our parashah teaches, the materials of the holy abode are to be gathered “from every person whose heart so moves them,” reminding us that every single one of us has something valuable to offer in the tasks we share as a Jewish community.
Our lives are filled with questions that have no simple answers, and even the Torah doesn’t claim to show us the way. But it does light our path. Our tradition provides essential principles that guide us in applying our own wisdom and creativity to the problems we face.
For instance: We learn from the Torah that God delights in diversity and also exults in the coming together of difference. Every one of us is created in the divine image and bears the power to shape the world around us, making it holy and more whole through the work of our hands. No one of us can stand at the center of that world; we stand side-by-side, in community, infused with the presence of the divine. And to preserve that community and bring honor to God, we are commanded to address the needs first and foremost of our society’s most vulnerable people and groups.
Basic tenets like these reverberate through our tradition, applied differently in every age. That is why, even though Moses is shown the pattern of the Mishkan, God says וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, “Let them [the people] build Me a sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8).
And that is why these verses are so exciting. They both inspire us and empower us to act.
This is our instruction: Come forward with full hearts and open hands, walk on the path illuminated by the wisdom of our tradition, and work together with your neighbor to make the world a brighter place.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”