Commentary on Exodus: Terumah

Last night’s Torah study had a big surprise for me. I ended up coming back to a text I first met many years ago, and had all-but forgotten since. I didn’t remember how the text started, or how it ended, or any of the context surrounding it. But right away, I dunno, I remembered – something.

“They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.”

EXODUS 25:10

Cubits.

I knew that word. A cubit is an obscure ancient measurement. Cubits. I’d heard the term before. I read on; the parsha is overflowing with cubits. Something had been jarred loose in me. Cubits. Cubits. Why do I know that word …

Twenty-five years ago, I had read this parsha as a Bar Mitzvah. And it had been years, maybe all 25 of them, since I’d given this text or that ceremony any thought at all.

I re-read the portion again. The text consists of instructions on how to make a Tabernacle. The manual is exacting and exhaustive, covering rings, bowls, tables, lanterns, cloths, incense, gems, oils, pelts, hammered gold-works and more.

I paused. Twenty-five years ago, I was a Bar Mitzvah, and my task was to read this passage and come up with something meaningful to say about it.

What the hell did I say?

The easiest thing for me to do is to reel off a bored, blasé description of my Bar Mitzvah. The Bar Mitzvah is supposed to be an arch-ceremony; here I am today, and I can barely describe mine. What I tend to recall of my Bar Mitzvah was an event that felt like neither a rite, nor a passage. It felt like something to do, that I was expected to do, and then did. The whole process happened so long ago, with virtually no investment on my part; when I do conjure it up, what comes back is mostly a hazy fog of colors and sounds and actions. Nothing felt, nothing belonged-to. I have much clearer visions of the party afterward. I was a barely-teenaged nerd, and not the cool-nerd we have in pop culture now – I was the nerdy kind of nerd. I was good boy who was good at school; that’s who I was. Thanks to my Bar Mitzvah, a bunch of girls showed up at a party where I was the central figure, and that was different, and cool.

At least, that’s one version. There is another.

As I sat again with the same passages, I was shocked at how quickly things came back and how vividly. There I was, standing on the bimah, a bimah I hadn’t heard from in two-plus decades. There I was, in front of these heavy grey doors – doors to the Torah ark – doors that dwarfed me, doors I even struggled to open. I was a runt-sized 13-year-old. I remembered the Rabbi, who towered over me. I remembered being up there, reading from Torah. I don’t remember passing into a stage that was more adult or more masculine, but I certainly do remember a day and an act that I had sworn were long-lost to me.

I focused back on the text – 

So what do I have to say, now?

As I read and discuss more Torah, I find myself getting more and more comfortable saying that I have an approach. I am not saying it is the right approach, or an especially brilliant approach – but it is my approach. What ends up happening to me, is that I gravitate to making Torah small. What I mean is that I am less excited by Big Ideas, and more excited when I can see how I can inject my life into the verses, the lessons and metaphors and characters. It is almost like I seek out ways to belong inside Torah. I struggled last week with Torah law – because I am not so interested in the concepts and abstract rulings. It turns out, I also fundamentally misunderstood how to read Torah and Torah law, but that’s an entirely separate subject.

This parsha is not a shopping list and it is not a set of procedures. Of course, it is both of those things. But the lists and the procedures exist to make something. For all the logistics, this is about the act of Creation. It is about how I can make the act of Creation belong to me, personally.

This realization came to me as I found myself seeing my guitars, in Torah.

I tell people that guitars have saved my life and I mean that. They’ve always been there for me, and always will be. If I’m going to place that level of weight on the guitar, it becomes imperative for me to seek out quality instruments. Quality instruments are quality precisely because of the exacting attention that goes into every choice. Every material matters. Every slope and curve – they all matter. Every measurement matters. Every turn of the screw – every style of screw to be turned – every micro-step is relevant. And when all of these choices come together, they all transcend each other, and become an instrument worth owning. Transcendence is the result of intention.

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

EXODUS 25:8

What exactly is happening in this parsha? Is G-d demanding people make him a temple? I don’t think so. G-d is the Infinite One-ness; G-d is the Creator of this and all other Universes. What use to G-d, is a temple, when G-d’s real temple, is Everything?

I wonder if if G-d’s objective here is to teach the Israelites how to create sanctity? In other words, that any space can be made into something that glorifies, and is worthy of being called a dwelling?

These lists of materials and assembly instructions represent so much more than a user guide or a FAQ page. These lists are a commitment. These lists are the personal investment of time and wealth and labor into a product that serves no obvious purpose other than the most important purpose, which is to say, “Creation is good.” The very act of making these investments, of following these structures, is an essential part of consecration. We can’t all go up to Mount Sinai like Moses, but we can participate in making-holy, by investing ourselves completely.

*

I have one other semi-related point to make. Up to now, we’ve read about mountains engulfed in fire, the Egyptian military being drowned, the slaughter of the first-born – incredible acts of power-as-destruction. But the parsha Terumha is so different – stylistically and substantially. We leave behind military heroism and great acts of Earth-shattering fear. We are presented with step-by-linear-step instructions, on how to make a space.

G-d’s revelation is quiet too: “there I will meet you, and impart to you.” (Exodus 25:22) A sanctuary – one we all can participate in making – will be the site of wonder, and what is the wonder? Merely a meeting. I love the quiet, subtle intimacy in this verse. A simple thing, made miraculous, through intention.

Prior chapters have been drenched in apocalyptic-scale negation – fear, trembling, awe-as-terror. This chapter shows the opposite: an intimate-scale addition.

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