Today I signed up to give a d'var Torah (or drash, that is, a meditation on the week's Torah reading) for Parashat Beshallah, which is coming up in February. So I'm posting the d'var Torah I did last February, on Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). The passage is about the building of the mikdash, the tabernacle that held the Ark, and it's full of a lot of details about how many cubits and how many golden pomegranates and goatskins and whatnot. It's very confusing, because it's hard to see how it relates to our own experience in the modern day. Here's what I said:
3 Adar 1, 5768 (2/9/2008)
Terumah is on some level the art historian’s parashah, since it is all about stuff and its meaning. So I’d like to offer an art historian’s drash. Like other parashiyot, this one raises a lot of questions including: why call for the building of the mikdash at this particular moment, after the giving of the Law? And what does it mean to call the mikdash a sanctuary built (in God’s words) “so that I may dwell among them?”
I’d like to focus on a particular line that sticks with me every time I read this parashah. In giving instructions for the building of the mikdash, God says to Moses, “Exactly as I show you… so shall you make it.” The question here is why is it so important that the mikdash be made so exactly according to what seem on the face of it some fairly arbitrary specifications?
One commentator (Yehudah Halevi) sees in this a link to the idea that we cannot approach God except as He commands us, on His own terms, and not according to our own need. This is an explanation that I have some sympathy for, as it goes a long way toward explaining why it feels meaningful to me to pray in a language that I still don’t understand very well; it’s a matter of bringing oneself to God, and not demanding that He bring Himself to us. Still, it doesn’t really explain all those acacia posts and goatskins and gold lampstands.
It is possible to see in this parashah, as in so many others, the echo of the ancient Near Eastern context in which our ancestors lived. It’s been pointed out by some commentators that this kind of a highly detailed and iconographically specific temple description is a textual genre known from other Near Eastern traditions besides our own.
Many, many commentators read the details of the building and its furnishings allegorically. Thus Don Isaac Abravanel suggests that the menorah is made of “pure gold” to remind us to be careful of impure ideas, and it always faces the Holy of Holies, reminding us that true wisdom is always in harmony with the Torah. This is a deeply familiar approach for most of us. We are well accustomed to the idea that every detail, turn of phrase or omission, must have some meaning, and that that meaning is often expressed associatively, metaphorically, or allegorically.
But while it is familiar, this explanation is not entirely satisfying because it still fails to explain the sense in this parashah that details of wood and bronze are somehow inherently important to God: “Exactly as I show you… so shall you build it.” Is this God’s need, or is it perhaps our own need? Allegorical explanations seem unsatisfactory here, because of the way they seem to restrict God.
The mikdash is built so that God may dwell among us, but we know that God cannot be contained by something we ourselves have built out of acacia posts and linen cloths. Solomon says something very close to this in describing the building of the First Temple (in a section of 1 Kings quite close to today’s haftarah reading): he addresses God, saying “even heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” And in fact our tradition is full of stories telling us that God dwells everywhere.
This is not God’s need.
We’re left, then, with the idea that it may well be our own; and yet, bronze sockets and twisted linen and purple and crimson dyes are so foreign to our own experience that it is hard to see how, from this distance of years. This is where the insights of art history become useful.
Art history recognizes that it is a basic human impulse to imbue objects and materials and spaces with meaning, and not just that, but also to use objects and materials and spaces to create meaning in our lives. And we value the ability to recognize that meaning, to know when things and places are significant. Materials in particular are sometimes the source of that meaning, as is the act of making.
A few examples: I’m wearing tourmaline earrings that were a graduation gift from my parents, and while I would wear them because they are my parents’ gift, they were chosen because tourmaline is the state gemstone of Maine, my first home. They are meaningful for their material. The Chinese Bronze Age is different from the Near Eastern Bronze Age because the Chinese discovery of bronze technology did not lead to the manufacture of bronze tools and weapons. In the Near East, and many other parts of the world, the introduction of bronze is primarily a technological innovation, and the material is valued for its practical uses. In China, bronze became a spiritually marked material, and was restricted to the casting of sacrificial vessels; Bronze Age farmers in China still worked with stone tools.
This tendency to ascribe meaning to objects, and their materials, and their manufacture, is really fundamental to the way we as human beings experience the world which is God’s creation. The peculiar exactness of God’s instructions as to the building of the mikdash is not a sign of God’s own interest in architectural design, but rather a response to a very human way of ordering the world and of making it meaningful. God commands it because He knows our nature – this is for our need.
In order to make ordinary things holy – a tent, a curtain, a table, a lamp – we are asked to make them ourselves, out of materials we have given freely (which is the meaning of the word “terumah,” a free-will offering), the finest which may be available, and in a way which is unlike ordinary things. This is necessary in order for us to understand the extraordinary, the indwelling of God among us, which transforms the everyday earth into holy ground.