The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him… And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Shemot:25: 1-8)
Rescued from slavery
blind to redemption,
they protest and revolt.
Despite all the miracles,
portents and wonders,
they remain unconvinced,
discouraged and weak.
Yet when comes the summons
to give of themselves,
they gather together
with purpose and strength.
They move into action:
their giving transforms them;
they build God a home
and He dwells in their midst.
In Covenant and Conversation http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5771-terumah-building-builders/ in 2011, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the portrayal of the building of the Mishkan or Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary which was carried through the desert. It follows the dramatic epic of the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. He notes the unusual length of the description which comprises one third of the book of Shemot: whereas the account of G-d’s creation of the universe takes a mere thirty-four verses, the account of the building of the Mishkan is fifteen times as long!
This is even more mystifying, given that the Mishkan was to be only a temporary fixture in the spiritual life of the children of Israel, as it was to be replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sacks wonders “What enduring message are we supposed to learn from a construction that was not designed to endure?” He finds the answer when he examines the behavior of the newly-freed slaves. They were fearful, easily discouraged and very passive, expecting God or Moses to do all the work.
Despite the signs and wonders which God has performed, they murmur and complain until Moses despairs. Rabbi Sacks comments, “… G-d does the single most unexpected thing. He says to Moses: speak to the people and tell them to contribute, to give something of their own, be it gold or silver or bronze, be it wool or animal skin, be it oil or incense, or their skill or their time, and get them to build something together – a symbolic home for my presence, a Tabernacle. It doesn’t need to be large or grand or permanent. Get them to make something, to become builders. Get them to give.”
Moses does as God tells him, and the people rise to the challenge – they give so munificently that we read later, in parashat Vayakhel, that the report comes back from the artisans that the people are bringing more than is needed. We learn there also that not only do they give of their belongings, they offer their skills. They make many of the appurtenances required and skilled women are mentioned who dye, weave and spin yarns and linens.
Rabbi Sacks points out that during the entire period while the Tabernacle was being constructed, there was no murmuring, no revolts. He says, “What all the signs and wonders failed to do, the construction of the Tabernacle succeeded in doing. It transformed the people. It turned them into a cohesive group. It gave them a sense of responsibility and identity.”
In a further commentary from 2015, http://www.rabbisacks.org/gratitude-labour-terumah-5775/ Rabbi Sacks expands on this theme, noting that the concept of an earthly dwelling-place for God is paradoxical, as we find, for example, in Isaiah (66:1) who quotes God saying, “The heaven is My throne and the earth My foot-stool. Where could you build a house for Me, what place could serve as My resting place?” So the Rabbis teach that the verse, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” means that God will dwell not in a building, but in the hearts of the people. Rabbi Sacks notes that until now, the people had been passive recipients – God had redeemed them and wrought miracles, but they had been unable to offer anything in return.
The instruction to the people that anyone whose heart moved him should bring gifts was their chance to give back. Those are the hearts in which God could live.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz in a commentary from 2014, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/terumah/5774/tabernacle-divinity-and-practicality, describes the construction of the Tabernacle as “a building campaign.” He emphasizes that it is not only the work of a few skilled Israelites, but rather a “communal project demanding communal participation.” He says that only this will draw God’s presence down among the people. However, he notes that it seems that the spiritual experience on Sinai a short while before has been replaced by very material practicalities. So he asks, “How are we to understand the role of the Tabernacle, then and now?” And he responds that the spiritual peak reached at Sinai could not be sustained. He says, “The Tabernacle becomes a vital symbol of transition. At Sinai, the Israelites are given the raw materials of the life they will build together. Not only are they gifted with laws toward creating a moral and ethical life, but they are also handed the blueprints of the Tabernacle. The design is divine, but its execution is the work of human hands. Moses is shown the plans firsthand, but now the Israelites translate the Godly vision into reality. More than a dwelling place for God, the Tabernacle becomes a powerful model of divine vision mediated through human participation. God and Moses’s vision elevate the biblical Israelites and modern-day Jews to lead sacred lives that truly become the dwelling place of God.”
And finally, in a commentary from 2003, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/terumah/5763/between-wilderness-and-jerusalem-tale-two-holy-spaces, Dr Ismar Schorsch compares the construction of the Tabernacle detailed in the parasha with that of the Temple (some 480 years later) described in the Haftarah. While both, he says, are concerned with the construction of sacred space, and the basic design is the same (although the former is wooden and mobile and the latter of stone and fixed), he sees great differences in the human involvement. He notes, “Both institutions reflect God’s will. In the case of Moses, the instructions are given directly, orally and visually (Exodus 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8). In the case of David, the sanction comes from God (II Samuel 7), the execution is left to Solomon. Yet the contrast could not be greater, and herein lies the value of the juxtaposition.”
With regard to the Tabernacle, the entire people comes forward and overwhelmingly offers both material gifts and skills to build it. Dr Schorsch says “The Torah leaves little doubt that the building of the Tabernacle was a consensual enterprise. The people’s enthusiastic response to Moses’s call for contributions translated into action the verbal assent they had given at Mount Sinai at hearing the content of the covenant: “Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!'” (24:7). Their faith was the wellspring of their philanthropy.”
However, he contrasts this with Solomon’s Temple concerning which no eager and generous idealism is described. We learn that Solomon taxed the people fiercely, as the Haftarah says, “King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month. . . Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers in the hills, apart from Solomon’s 3,300 officials who were in charge of the work.” (I Kings 5:27-30).
Dr Schorsch adds, “The difference did not escape the attention of a medieval midrash. “The Tabernacle for which the people volunteered wholeheartedly never fell victim to the evil eye. The Temple, however, for which they did not, fell victim to the hand of the enemy.” (Torah Shlema*). So he observes “The lasting lesson of the Tabernacle is the supreme importance of voluntarism in the conduct of the Jewish polity…While the endless details of the building of the Tabernacle may drive us to distraction, we should not lose sight of the selfless ethos that drove the project to completion. Salvation in Judaism is about losing ourselves in the welfare of the whole and making a difference in the lives of others.”
*The Torah Shelema was authored by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher (1895 – 1983), a Polish-born Israeli rabbi and prolific author who authored an encyclopedic work on the Torah entitled Torah Shelema.
Rabbi Kasher was born in Warsaw, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), the son of a Rabbi. At the age of 19, he edited the periodical Degel Ha’Torah, the mouthpiece of the Polish branch of Agudath Israel.
In 1924, in response to a call from the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, Rabbi Kasher moved to Jerusalem, in Mandatory Palestine, to establish the Sfat Emet Yeshiva in honour of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter – the Sefat Emet. He subsequently served as the head of the yeshiva for its first two years and later helped bring the Rebbe to Palestine about six months after the outbreak of World War II.
Rabbi Kasher’s major work, Torah Shelema (“The Complete Torah”) is divided into two parts. The first part is the encyclopedia, the first work to publish all of the Written Law (the Pentateuch) and the Oral Teachings (Talmud and Midrashim) side by side. He published from manuscript form several previously unknown midrashic works such as the Midrash Teiman. The latter part consists of the extensive annotations and addendum in which he uses his awareness of variant texts as well as his almost encyclopedic knowledge in all Jewish works to clarify many obscure points in the Talmud and the Rambam’s commentary.
The first volume was published in Jerusalem in 1927 and included 352 entries to the first chapter of Bereishit. The 38th volume was still published in his lifetime (1983) and included Parshat Beha’alotcha. The 39th volume was published posthumously by his son-in-law Dr. Rabbi Aaron Greenbaum and includes a short biography. The 40th volume includes an expanded biography and full list of his works.
To date, 45 volumes have been printed covering the first 4 Chumashim (books of the Pentateuch).
Another work, Gemara Shelema, which was to have discussed and compared variant texts of the Talmud was never completed except for Tractate Pesachim.
In response to the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Kasher advocated the drinking of a 5th cup at the Passover Seder. However, his request to the Chief Rabbinate that it be officially instituted was dismissed.
In 1963, Rabbi Kasher was a recipient of the Israel Prize in Rabbinical literature in 1963 and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University.