Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
For liberal Jews, the connection to Tabernacle, Temple and sacrificial system is something we rejected long ago.
We recently observed the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. (Lovers of American history will note that this birth-date is shared by Abraham Lincoln.) I've always wondered if Darwin's interest in biology was hereditary or environmental. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, came up with his own theory on evolution, which he published in verse! Alas, the elder Darwin did not live to see his grandson, but it is nice to imagine that Erasmus' writings were cherished by young Charles.
We do, however, know that other people were very taken with the ideas of Erasmus Darwin. Among them was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who, spending a very rainy summer on Lake Geneva, whiled away the hours with her companions in conversation and storytelling. One of their more interesting topics of conversation was Erasmus Darwin, for according to reports he had animated dead matter.
This fired Mary's imagination that soggy summer and she came up with a story about the reanimation of dead matter. Published in 1818 under her married name of Mary Shelley, this tale is more familiar to us from film adaptations starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. The actual title of the novel is Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
This fascination with giving life to dead matter is an interest that can be found in various cultures. Jewish folklore has the story of the golem. In the Talmud, Adam, formed from dust "kneaded into a shapeless mass" is described as being a golem at an early stage of creation before "a soul was infused into him." (Sanhedrin 38b, Soncino translation) The most well-known Jewish tale is the legend of the Golem of Prague. The idea of the golem has inspired many writers and film-makers who have entertained us with modern perspectives on this legend. Another tale about giving life to inanimate objects would be familiar to North Americans from a classic cartoon. Based on a poem by Goethe , 1940's Fantasia features Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, bringing broomsticks to life. Today, many of us feel we are on the verge of turning fiction into reality: whether it is through the creation of life in a biological lab or the eventual blurring of lines between human and artificial intelligence.
At first glance Parashat Terumah appears to be as removed from the creation of life as possible. It deals with the construction of the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, all of which is described in excruciating detail. Then again, the instructions are from God and so we had better get it right!
Yet from rabbinic midrash to modern biblical scholarship, we are given examples of how the building of the Tabernacle contains many similarities to the story of creation. Scholars such as Jon Levenson have analyzed the structure of the narrative that occupies the latter chapters of Exodus. The similarity in structure between Exodus 39-40, which details the building of the Tabernacle, and the story of creation is "powerful evidence that, as in many cultures, the Temple was conceived as a microcosm, a miniature world." (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p, 86) The similarities are brought out strikingly in a midrash that Levenson quotes:
On the first day it is written: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," [Genesis 1:] and it is written, "You spread the heavens like a tent cloth," [Psalm 104:2] and of the Tabernacle what is written? "You shall then make cloths of goat hair." [Exodus 26:7]
On the second day: "Let there be an expanse," and it speaks of a separation, as it says: "that it may separate [mabdil] water from water." [Genesis 1:6] And of the Tabernacle it is written: "so that the curtain shall serve you as a partition [hibdula]."[Exodus 26:33]
On the third day water is discussed, as it says: 'Let the water . . . be gathered." [Genesis 1:9] And of the Tabernacle it is written: "Make a laver [kiyor] of copper and a stand of copper for it. . . . Put water in it."[Exodus 30:18]
On the fourth day he created lights, as it is written: "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky." [Genesis 1:14] And of the Tabernacle it is written: "You shall make a lampstand of pure gold." [Exodus 25:31] …Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p, 97
Parashat Terumah also contains words that can be termed the language of creation: The verb used most frequently is asah, to make. This is the same verb that is used with the creation of humanity: Let us make (na'aseh) humanity (Genesis 1:26) More importantly, as was brought to my attention by my colleague Rabbi Debra Landsberg, these chapters that deal with inanimate objects use words that may be associated with living beings:
The walls of the tabernacle are called tselah, which is also the word for "rib." (See especially Exodus 26.) The word for the edge of a cloth is safah, "lip." (As in Exodus 26:4.) For the width of the enclosure on the front, or east side, fifty cubits: fifteen cubits of hangings on the one flank (la-katef) (Exodus 27:13-14), katef being the Hebrew word for shoulder. The description of how the cloths are connected is literally "as a woman is joined to her sister." (Exodus 26:3. See last year's commentary for more on this phrase.)
The terminology used in the building of the Tabernacle is reminiscent of that used for the creation of humanity. God breathed life into humanity and gave each one of us a soul; God's dwelling in our midst became the soul of the Tabernacle. Without the Divine Presence, the Tabernacle would have been as much of a golem as the soulless creature formed by human hands.
Many Jews still feel a living connection to the Tabernacle and its later version, the Temple. However, for liberal Jews, the connection to Tabernacle, Temple and sacrificial system is something we rejected long ago. What can we aspire to, those of us who do not draw a line from biblical Tabernacle to ancient Temples built and destroyed to a future Temple in a Messianic Age? What can we shape, form or build that will be infused with that Divine spirit? The answer is not new and it remains our most important, sacred long-range project:
And all your children shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children. (Isaiah 54:13) Read not banayich (your children) but bonayich (your builders).Berachot 64a
The next generation is our Divine building project. Whether by birth, adoption, through formal or informal teaching, or role-modeling, we all have a role in creating the Jewish future.
Rabbi Michal Shekel