Making Free Will Offerings
Along with tzedakah, terumah is a vital way of sustaining our Jewish communities.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parashat Terumah focuses on building the symbolic core of the Israelites: the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which will become the central shrine and sacred symbol of God's dwelling amidst the people. The Mishkan will be a physical entity, but it will spiritually link the Israelites into a nation through God's divine Presence. This portable structure is considered the forerunner of the Temple built in Jerusalem many generations after the wilderness experience.
Today, the synagogue, with its distinct reminders of the Tabernacle and Temple, functions as the communal focal point for the Jewish people. It, too, serves as the spiritual center connecting Jews of all generations to our history, people, and covenant.
Working For a Common Goal
The building of the Mishkan will force the Israelites to work together in order to fulfill a common goal and prepare for a common future. Although they have just been given the Decalogue-the precepts that bind the Israelites to God and one another-the people's participation in the making of the Tabernacle will unify the nation in a different way. It will elevate the seemingly mundane work of construction into a sacred vocation, dedicated to the service of the One God who freed them from Egypt and revealed the terms of the covenant.
These former slaves are no strangers to building monuments and cities. The backbreaking labor of the Israelites in Egypt glorified the pharaoh and the Egyptian gods; but this certainly was not a sacred endeavor. In contrast, constructing the Tabernacle and all its finery will be holy work that aims to create sacred space and sacred instruments of worship.
Parashat Terumah goes into great detail about the various parts of the Tabernacle, describing the Ark of the Covenant, the special table for the bread of display, the menorah, the curtains of the tent, the parochet (partition that screens off the sacred inner sanctum), and the altar for delivering offerings to God.
In this Torah portion and the ones that follow, the design of the Tabernacle and its contents are laid out with precise measurements and great specificity. A number of these objects can be found in contemporary synagogues, reminders of the sacred structures of our biblical ancestors. Then and now, the ark stands as the epicenter of God's presence and the container for the divine word. Many arks contain a special curtain or partition called a parochet, as in the Tabernacle. In sanctuaries today, the menorah shines as a symbol of the Jewish people, just as the ner tamid (27:20; understood as an eternal light) provides a sign of God's indwelling presence.