Terumah – “Contribution”

Our parasha today is entitled Terumah, meaning ‘contribution’. It takes us from Exodus 25 through 27:19. The subject matter of these chapters, and most of the rest of the book of Exodus, is the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Ark of the Covenant. God gave Moses a detailed blueprint, as it were, and the list of materials for the construction is varied and quite fascinating.

  • gold, silver, and bronze
  • blue, purple, and scarlet-colored fabric
  • goat hair
  • rams’ skins dyed red and porpoise skins
  • acacia wood, oil and spices
  • onyx stones, other precious, semi-precious stones

And all of these things for one grand, magnificent purpose: that God Himself might dwell among us (25:8). The verb shachan, from which we get the word Mishkan, means to dwell or inhabit. God didn’t command us to construct a Tabernacle merely to keep us busy and out of trouble. It was to be a labor of love, with love as its ultimate aim.

People equate love with emotion, but authentic love is about commitment. Feelings wax and wane, but love leads to action; it always yields tangible results. It costs something. Well, here was an opportunity for our people to express their love for Adonai. Though Israel left Egypt with great wealth, it doesn’t mean that everyone had gold to contribute, or even necessarily silver or bronze. But I think it’s safe to say everyone had something on that list – even if just some spices.

And there wasn’t even the slightest hint of compulsion. This was altogether voluntary. Let me reiterate, מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, “from every man whose heart moves him…”

The Ark, of course, was the most significant piece of furniture. It was to be made out of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold – inside and out. It was never to be picked up and hand-carried, but four rings of cast gold were to be fastened at its four corners, and poles (also of acacia and also overlaid with gold), were to be used to carry the Ark whenever it was time for Israel to pack up and set out. The Ark would hold the tablets with the Ten Commandments (also called “the Testimony”) and eventually also house the jar containing the sample of manna, and Aaron’s rod which had sprouted buds, confirming God’s choice of the tribe of Levi to serve Him there.

The Ark was to have a solid gold covering, called the kapporet, meaning ‘covering’, but which is translated alternately as the mercy seat or propitiation, because the same root, kapper, is the word for ‘atonement’. The dimensions of the kapporet were to match the length and width of the Ark, but it was far more than just the top of a box. In fact, it was of such significance that in 2 Chronicles 28, the Holy of Holies is actually called “the house of the kapporet,” because above the kapporet was where God would manifest Himself in a cloud (Lev. 16:2)! The kapporet was also to be adorned on its top with two golden cherubim, also of solid gold, facing each other, one at each end, their wings spreading over it and touching each other at the center.

In chapter 27 we find that the altar was also to be constructed of acacia, 7.5  feet by 7.5 feet and 4.5 feet high. The altar was to be overlaid with bronze rather than gold. The altar was to have four horns, one adorning each corner, but not nailed on it; rather, the horns were to be carved out of the same solid piece of acacia as the top of the altar. The altar was also to be carried by poles rather than by hand. By this, we are meant to understand the holiness of these things. Sinful human hands were never to touch them once they were completed. The tools for the altar were likewise to be made of bronze. The parasha concludes with the dimensions of the outer courtyard surrounding the tent: 150 feet by 75 feet.

A few closing thoughts about Parasha Terumah:

  1. Couldn’t the all-powerful God, whose artistry is sublime, have simply spoken a word and brought the Tabernacle into being? Wouldn’t something made by Him be vastly superior to anything of our own doing? Yet He asked frail, flawed men to construct it, and with decidedly earthly materials. Why?

Perhaps the use of porpoise skins, goat hair, wood and fabrics and bronze represent man’s earth-bound nature, whereas the gold, silver and precious stones represent God’s purity and holiness. But the point is, God invites us to participate, not be spectators. He could certainly do things more skillfully, artistically and efficiently than we, but by bringing a perfect end result out of the imperfect efforts of flawed human beings, He receives all the more glory.

  1. During the wilderness wandering, the Ark of the Covenant was at least occasionally visible, as Israel followed God and moved from place to place. But eventually the Ark would be placed permanently in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where it would be seen by just one man, and just once each year. Why, then, all this impractical, non-utilitarian beauty – ornate hammered gold and winged cherubim, if it would never be seen and appreciated by men? I think the point of it is that the beauty of all these things is for Him – just as there are beautiful mountain flowers that nobody sees, and fascinating deep-sea creatures that until recently no one had ever seen; but He sees them; He created them, and everything and everyone exists for His pleasure.
  2. Here’s the thing: the Tabernacle isn’t about us, it’s about God’s glory; but the Tabernacle is for our sake – atonement. During the existence of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, God humbled Himself to dwell in the midst of a community of sinful human beings. It’s amazing, then, to think that, in the New Covenant, God is dwelling (by His Spirit) within us!

Rabbi Paul, wrote to the Corinthians, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. as God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” If we are His house, then it is only fitting that we keep this house in reverent and proper order… Amen?