Parashat Terumah: A Very, Very Expensive Mishkan
“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. – Exodus 25:8
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, contains a detailed blueprint for the building of the Mishkan (or Tabernacle). This is the portable Temple used by the Israelites from the time of the Exodus until the conquest of the land of Canaan in the Book of Joshua. The offerings made by the Israelites to furnish the Mishkan are rich and colourful: gold, silver, copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine linen, to name but a few. And the ornate furnishings into which these were fashioned – such as the Ark of the Covenant with two cherubim on top or the single-piece gold lampstand – sound equally impressive.
All the above and more – the design of the Mishkan and the pattern for all its furnishings – come directly from God. It is through God’s voice that these materials are requested and that gives added significance to the intricate descriptions of each of the items that are to grace the Tabernacle (as well as a detailed description of the Tabernacle itself.)
Please bear with me, but I would like to briefly divert your attention from the Mishkan to the movies. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) our protagonist and his captors have at last found the final resting place of the Holy Grail; this is a cup that legend tells us belonged to Jesus Christ and was supposedly used by him at the Last Supper. Whoever drinks from this cup is to be granted eternal life, or so the legend goes. The room in which Indiana Jones stands is filled with hundreds of beautiful and ornate goblets and chalices. In order to save his dying father, Indie must only identify the true grail and bring it to his father. The catch comes in the form of a foreboding warning from an aging knight who solemnly states: “You must choose. But choose wisely. For as the True Grail will bring you life — the false Grail will take it from you”. One of Indie’s sadistic captors chooses first, selecting a goblet of solid gold – perhaps the most beautiful cup in the room. Quicky he snatches up the cup and drinks from it, there is a dramatic pause, before he yells in pain, ages rapidly, and dies. As the knight states, “He chose… poorly.”
Indie surveys the remaining cups before eventually settling on a simple earthenware one and remarking, “That’s the cup of a carpenter”. He puts the cup to his lips and the knight tells him, “You have chosen wisely.”
(It is perhaps of note that the Indiana Jones film series was written and directed by a team of Jews. Furthermore, the first film in the series revolved around the Ark of the Covenant!)
What makes this scene so powerful is that it plays on our expectations. The filmmakers know that most people would expect an item of spiritual significance to have a physical glory to match. Indeed it is no coincidence that the Roman Catholic Sistine Chapel features Michelangelo’s glorious fresco, that the Greek Pantheon housed an enormous statue of Athena Parthenos made from ivory, silver and gold or that the Israelite High Priests vestments includes so many rich gemstones. Glorification of God is extended to those objects and locations with which we use to glorify the Eternal One.
However, that scene from Indiana Jones leads me to reconsider the true value of all those precious metals, fine yarns and acacia wood which God asks the Israelites to donate for the purpose of building the Mishkan. This is because it draws on the contrasting image of religious piety as one of modesty; such as, the grail in Indiana Jones; Bishop Myriel in Les Miserables; and the nuns in the Sound of Music. Indeed, stories about religious leaders making extravagant personal purchases often invite scorn and criticism.
However, Biblical and rabbinic Judaism certainly does not shun materialism and, in certain cases – such as our Torah portion – seems to encourage it. I believe this addresses a fundamental truth; human beings are materialistic by their very nature. In today’s consumer driven society this tendency is only multiplied.
On the one hand unchecked materialism, even with the best of intentions, can lead to dire consequences. This is perhaps best illustrated by the story of the Golden Calf. In our own time we may want pause to consider the impact that things like fast fashion, short-lived technologies and non-recyclable merchandise have, not only on the environment, but on our mental health as well.
In fact, the altar we find in Exodus Chapter 21 is a far cry from that which is described in Terumah. There the Eternal One says that we are not to make gods of gold and silver and that their altar is to be made of earth. As the sixteenth century Italian scholar Ovadia Sforno explains, “It is also not necessary to make Temples of silver and gold and precious stones in order to bring Me close to you.” So, why the change of heart just four chapters later?
Religion is constantly trying to balance the spiritual against the physical. I think we can learn from both the simplicity of the earthen altar and the decadence of the Mishkan, in order to help us consider how we might balance our own innate desire towards materialism. A simple altar or grail may be enough for a deity but, for human beings who occupy the physical world, other avenues of expression are required. We see this reflected in the beautification of our synagogues and ritual objects. That said, we must also realise that spirituality is not embodied within buildings and items, but are inherent to the people who use these to achieve something greater. Beautiful buildings can help enhance one’s feeling of spirituality but only a community of beautiful souls can create it. The giving of our excess wealth and combining it for the sake of the greater good is the ideal.
David-Yehuda Stern LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.