Parshat Terumah: Exodus: 25:1 - 27:19                                     


In this week'’s Torah portion, God says to Moses, "“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (terumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from any person whose heart is so moved."” It is interesting that God does not command the people to bring gifts for the building of the sanctuary, but rather urges those “whose heart is so moved” to make freewill donations. The rabbis saw a difference between  tzedakah and terumah: We are commanded to give tzedakah, but terumah is a gift of the heart. God asked for gifts of a variety of precious metals, yarns, linen, animal skins, wood, oil, spices and precious stones. Moses was to accept these gifts in order to construct a portable sanctuary which the Israelites would carry from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land. God instructs Moses, “"Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. … There I will meet with you, and I will speak to you … and I will command you concerning the Israelite people”." (Exodus 25:8; 22). 

Before the creation of the first “mikdash” or sanctuary (often called the Tabernacle or “mishkan”), our ancestors worshipped God on hilltops, mountains or wherever they felt moved. And Jewish tradition still teaches that we experience God in many ways: in nature, in love and friendship, in acts of kindness, in celebration, in the study of Torah. In the Bible (I Kings 8:27), King Solomon who built the first Temple in Jerusalem, admitted that God, who could not be contained by all the heavens, could certainly not be limited to “this house that I have built!” What, then, is the purpose of the sanctuary? The midrash offers an answer through an imaginary conversation between God and the people of Israel. It depicts the people explaining to God that all human rulers have beautiful palaces by means of which their subjects can demonstrate their loyalty and love. God responds, “I have no need for such a place.” God soon realizes that it is the people who have such a need. For that reason, God directs the building of the sanctuary so that they may have a visual assurance of God’s presence amongst them. 

God then gives Moses the architectural details for the Tabernacle and its contents: 

·         First comes the portable ark, a cube made of acacia wood and covered with gold. On the top were two guarding creatures, called kruvim (cherubs) made of beaten gold. The spot between the kruvimwas the place from which God would speak with Moses. The major purpose of the ark was to house the tablets with the Ten Commandments, which God will give to Moses. The ark is to be kept in the innermost chamber of the Tabernacle, called the Holy of Holies.

·         Next there was a table of acacia wood covered with gold which would hold the twelve loaves of bread, representing each tribe, and which were offered and changed weekly. 

·         The menorah – a candlestick of pure gold with seven branches. 

·         The Mishkan, the Tabernacle itself, is described. It was a rectangular structure made from wooden beams covered with gold. The beams were held together with silver sockets. It was divided into two segments by embroidered curtains. The innermost chamber held the ark. The next segment held the menorah and the bread table (and the not-yet-described incense altar). The Mishkan was waterproof, covered with woven goat hair covers, rams’ skins dyed red, and the skins of tachash (often translated as “dolphins” – but where can you find dolphins in the middle of the Sinai desert?) 

·         The large altar on which the sacrifices were offered. It was to be seven and a half feet long and seven and a half feet wide. Its height was four and a half feet. Made from acacia wood, it was covered with brass. It had horns on its corners and a grate for the fire. It was placed outside the Mishkan

·         The Mishkan and the altar were surrounded by a large courtyard, created by fine linen hung from metal posts.

·         Everything was portable. The table, the ark, the altar, and the menorah all had rings on their sides through which acacia poles (covered with gold) were placed so they could be carried. The Mishkanand the courtyard could be taken apart and the pieces could be carried separately.


·         The Israelites are to build God a sanctuary so that God might dwell among them. In his biblical commentary, Rabbi Meir Leib ben Yehiel Michael (Malbim) wrote that the verse Exodus 25:8 actually means that God would dwell among or within the people, not literally in the sanctuary. The Malbim continues, each person is to build God a Tabernacle in his or her own heart for God to dwell in. What do you think the Malbim meant? What does it mean for you to have a place in your heart for God? What does that place look like? By making a special place for God in your heart does it change the way you think or feel? Does it make you want to do special things? Would it influence you to give terumah

·         Very little is known concerning the kruvim alluded to in this portion. The Rabbis in Talmudic times understood it to mean “like a child” (from the Hebrew ki- [like] and the Aramaic rabbia [child]) – an explanation which probably influenced artistic portraits of cherubim as chubby-cheeked, winged children. It has been suggested that the kruvim represented the love between God and Israel – facing each other at times when Israel was pleasing to God, and turning away from each other when the Israelites disobeyed God’s word. Even the function of the kruvim is uncertain. The Greeks depicted love as a child with bow and arrow. How does the idea of Cupid differ from the concept of the kruvim? The kruvim may have served as guards protecting the Ark just as (in Genesis 3:24) they bore fiery swords to bar Adam and Eve’s way back to the Garden of Eden. 

Some Thoughts and Questions 

1.     Why is Exodus 25:8 the classic verse quoted in all building-fund brochures? What is the difference between terumah and tzedakah? When you give a gift of terumah what kind of feelings do you have inside? Are your feelings the same or different when you give a gift of tzedakah? How does your family support/contribute to your synagogue? Is support of your synagogue terumah or tzedakah? Is this support sometimes terumah and sometimes tzedakah

2.     The Israelites were told to bring terumah for the building of the Tabernacle. While we may not consider it polite to ask for specific gifts, the people were given clear instructions about what was to be given. Why do you think the Israelites were told what to bring? Why would the Tabernacle and all the objects it was to contain need to be made of special materials? Imagine that you are an Israelite, would you give a gift of terumah to the building of the Tabernacle? Why or why not? 

3.     The Israelites were creating a very special space as a dwelling place for God. We no longer have the Tabernacle, but as a Jewish community we have created special spaces: our synagogues and especially the aronot where we keep the Torah. Do you think of your synagogue as a dwelling place for God? Is it a Tabernacle for you? Are there are other places or spaces which are Tabernacles for you? What makes them Tabernacles? 

4.     In this Torah portion we are told that God wants a place to dwell among the people. It’s hard to imagine God’s needing a place to be when we usually think about God’s being everywhere. God dwells among us when we do acts of tzedakah, when we do good and kind things for each other, when we show that we care. Describe things you have done that illustrate God’s dwelling among us. Describe actions of other people which demonstrate that God is near us.