Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although the words “Ark” and “Tabernacle” are sometimes used interchangeably, the Tabernacle is actually what houses the Ark of the Covenant (which in turn houses the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and which was portable through the desert). In Parshat Terumah, which takes place well after the Golden Calf episode has subsided, there is a divine awareness that the ancient Israelites needed to have a place to worship – a makom – in order to cement their identification as a people. So, guided by God’s very specific architectural instructions – and by the superbly talented artist that God has chosen, Bezalel – the people find and donate the materials to construct a beautiful setting where they can gather to worship and feel close to God. In later iterations when they actually enter the Promised Land, it will become a Temple.

Every time I read this parsha, I think of John Dryden’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he equates universal truth with beauty and beauty with universal truth. “That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Although Dryden didn’t study Kabbalah, beauty is high up on the Kabbalistic ladder of attributes.

And every time I study Terumah, I also think of the Toronto exhibition of recovered Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, buried for 50 years to save them from the Nazis – the earth had been their protective tabernacle. Over a period of five years, I organized this exhibit (at the request of my good friend, the late Hon. Kalman Samuels, then Honorary Ambassador to Yugoslavia, now the former Yugoslavia). It took place in 1990, shown just before a horrific, new conflict broke out in that country. Smaller than the Czech collection, this display of precious Judaica was held at the beautiful, jewel-like, museum of the substantial Beth Tzedec synagogue. The famous Cecil Roth collection is permanently housed there. On this occasion, though, with the cooperation of the Museum of Zagreb (in Croatia) and the Jewish Museum of Belgrade (in Serbia), and lots of diplomatic help, the Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, dating back centuries, were on view to the public for two months.

What especially took one’s breath away was the large collection of silk parochets – the embroidered or otherwise patterned curtains that had once shielded the Torah-containing Arks of so many synagogues throughout Yugoslavia – perfectly preserved and hanging in overwhelming splendor from the vaulted ceiling all along the grand stairway that led to the Beth Tzedec’s second floor. It was the inspiration of the museum’s curator, Judith Cardozo, to place them there.

Over the past years, I have traveled a good deal of the world as Guest Staff Rabbi for a prominent cruise line. Some of the places I have visited have been so marked by political strife, extreme poverty, and ugly graffiti, that I could not help thinking it was a good thing “the people” had their religion, their cathedrals and mosques, their beautiful places to which to retreat – and, in the case of Brazil, the frenetic music, dance and costumes of Carnival — in the midst of all this ugliness, or they would simply explode. Faith and beauty, if not truth, were their safeguards.

And, as portrayed by Terumah, in the desert where the ancient Israelites traveled on the way to the Promised Land, God realizes that it is time for the Jewish people to have a place of spiritual beauty – still a transportable one — where they can both worship and feel close to the Divine presence. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses.

For this undertaking, the people they will need to bring gifts of the the finest materials: gold, silver, copper; blue (obtained from specific snails), purple, and crimson yarns (probably wool because they held dye well), fine linen, and materials of the desert such as goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins. Fine acacia wood was needed. In addition, oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense were needed. And finally, gems like lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones for the ephods and breastpieces (of the priests’ garments) (Exodus 25: 3-8).

As we read these passages today, it’s amazing how detailed, how precise, God’s instructions are. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments in “Covenant and Conversation” (5777), the building of the tabernacle is, in effect, a symbolic micro-cosmos reflecting the exact precision of the universe. The instructions given to Noah to build an Ark to save a portion of the world and its creatures were similarly precise. Even the human body, the human genome, requires precision in the way the many details of the body’s composition work together.

Mystics have always understood that mathematics underlies the Torah – underlies the cosmos and every living thing, no matter how large or small. What is most important, in the end, is our interior tabernacle; that is the personal sanctuary we most need to furnish with the light of the menorah and keep it alive, even if we are in a far-away country, even if we don’t own a lampstand.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.