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D’var Torah Terumah

Shabbat Shalom:
Congruence in thought and deed, i.e. both inside and out.

Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

From Sanctuary to Study House
Ilana Kurshan

Parshat Terumah contains elaborate instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where the divine presence resided throughout the Israelites’ desert wanderings. For those of us living in an age without a Temple, it may seem difficult to find religious meaning in all the architectural details – how many cubits long and wide the ark must be, how many rings should be affixed to the table, which colors of linen should be used for the curtains that covered the entire edifice. Fortunately, we can look to the Talmudic rabbis—who were also living after the Temple’s destruction – to learn how these verses may take on new meaning such that spirituality is less about structure than about study.

Throughout the Talmud, the details of the Mishkan’s construction serve as an occasion for extolling the virtue of Torah study. The rabbis (Yoma 72b) note that three of the Temple vessels—the altar, the table, and the ark—contained a zer, an ornamental golden rim that resembled a crown (the modern Hebrew word zer refers to a wreath or a garland). The rabbis associate each of these crowns with a different religious value. The crown of the altar, where the sacrifices were offered by the priests, symbolized the priesthood, which Aaron took for himself and his descendants. The crown of the table, which connotes abundance and wealth, symbolized the kingship, which David took for himself and his descendants. But the crown of the ark—where the tablets given on Sinai were housed—symbolized Torah, which “is still sitting and waiting to be acquired, and anyone who wishes may come and take it.” Torah study thus becomes the great equalizer – it is accessible to anyone who wishes to pursue it, regardless of wealth or lineage. Although the Mishkan is generally regarded as the domain of the priestly class, the Talmudic rabbis, who were champions of Torah study, found a way to ensure that all Jews had a place at the table – or at least in the ark.

The Talmudic sage Rava pursues this association between the ark and Torah study in commenting on the verse, “From within and without you shall cover it” (Exodus 25:11). The ark had to be overlaid with a cover of pure gold on both the inside and the outside. Rava interprets this architectural requirement as a description of the proper character of a Torah scholar. He states that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a true Torah scholar. A scholar of Torah must uphold the same values in her private life as in her public life, just as the ark must have the same pure gold on the inside and the outside.

The “showbread,” the lechem hapanim, was also employed by the sages to espouse the value of Talmud Torah. The Talmud in Menachot teaches that there were twelve loaves made of fine flour and arranged in two piles on the table in the sanctuary. The Torah states that they had to be before God “always,” meaning that they had to be on the table at all times. The Mishnah in Menachot (11:7) describes the elaborate choreography whereby one set of priests would remove the previous week’s loaves at the very same instant as another set of priests set down the new bread. The Talmudic rabbis, struck by this obsessive concern with ensuring that the table was not left bare for even an instant, make an implicit analogy between the bread and Torah, invoking the verse “This Torah shall not depart from your mouth, you shall contemplate it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). Just as the bread had to be on the table at all times, a person should always be occupied with Torah study. When it comes to sustaining life, it is as important to speak words of Torah as it is to ensure there is bread on the table, as the Torah reminds us: “Man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from God’s mouth” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

At this point the Talmud quotes a figure identified as “Ben Dama, son of Rabbi Yishmael’s sister,” who inquires cheekily whether he may be granted an exception from this injunction to study Torah at all times, since, as he claims, he has already learned the entire Torah. May he leave aside the study of Torah and engage in Greek wisdom? Rabbi Yishmael responds to his nephew by quoting the verse from the book of Joshua. He must contemplate Torah day and night. If he can find an hour that is neither day nor night, then he may use that time to pursue his extracurricular interests. Just as the bread always had to be in the presence of God, a Jew should always be engaged in the study of Torah. (It is worth noting that as understood by the rabbis, Torah was a broad category that subsumed many other disciplines as well, such that Ben Dama could not have been missing out on all that much.) Moreover, the study of Torah brings us closer to God, as per the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:6) which teaches that even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. The proof text for this Mishnah in fact comes from a description of sacrificial worship: “Make for me an altar of earth… in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). God’s presence will reside not just on the altars where sacrifices are offered, but also in any place where God’s name is mentioned by scholars of Torah.

Our parsha, on its surface, more closely resembles an architectural blueprint than a moral code. But the rabbis understood that the Torah is more concerned with building a society than with building a structure. They knew that Judaism through its disciplines has the potential to fashion a morally beautiful life, just as an architect fashions a beautiful structure. And so they used the verses about the Mishkan to teach about the supreme religious pursuit, the study of Torah. Accessible to every Jew, the Torah study has the potential to transform us within and without, affecting who we are and what we think about, such that no matter what we are doing, we are always at the same time contemplating the divine will. When read through the eyes of the rabbis, Parshat Teruma is a reminder that a world devoid of God’s Temple may nonetheless, be permeated by God’s presence.


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