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Terumah 5779

02/12/2019 04:15:08 PM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

Many rabbis feel that Terumah is one of the toughest parshiot to speak about - our job is to take the parsha, find something that we find especially interesting, and speak about it in a way that connects to our lives. And so a parsha that contains almost exclusively information about how to build the mishkan is known affectionately as one of the more challenging parshiot, and one that in theory we may want to try to avoid. And somehow, despite multiple bnai mitzvah, guest speakers, and maternity leave, I find myself speaking on parashat Terumah for the fourth year in a row. But I’m always up for a challenge, and so I wanted to speak today about this parsha through the lens of the work of Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson, who, when studying the Tabernacle literature in college, fell in love with it. And so anyone who can fall in love with this gets a drasha dedicated to her research! So I wanted to walk through the questions that she asks, and then the answers that she gives. 

Dr. Robertson’s work is really her answer to 2 questions about the text.  The first is - what is the goal of this week’s parsha? Reading it, we assume of course that it is the IKEA manual for how to build the mishkan and all of the utensils that belong in it. But as Dr. Robertson points out, making that argument is a bit of a tough sell. For the instructions are fairly redundant in some areas, and also lack key information in other areas. This week in our parsha classes I printed out a photo of the menorah from the Temple Institute and gave it to half of the group and asked them to write instructions for how one should build it. I gave the other half just the verses about the menorah, and asked them to draw what the menorah should look like based on the verses. As you can imagine, the group that wrote the instructions for how to build the menorah based on the photo - the instructions didn’t sound anything like the ones in the Torah, and those who had to draw the menorah based on the verses - well, I didn’t bring the drawings but some of us couldn’t even finish the drawings because certain parts of the instructions are so ambiguous that it’s difficult to tell how it is supposed to work out. I used to think that Parashat Terumah read like an IKEA manual, but with the way that Dr. Robertson frames it, it reads like how we would imagine a joke about an IKEA manual would read - missing key parts of the instructions, not making too much sense, etc. So our first question is - why? What is the goal of the text?

The second question she asks about this parsha relates to where it is situated in the book of Shemot, and the structure of Shemot as a whole. Until now, the book has been a rich source of narrative and drama. We started at a major low of slavery, and have progressed through the exodus and receiving the Torah and civil laws. This week’s parsha takes a dramatic turn - God gives Moshe all of the instructions for building the mishkan. Next week with parashat Tetzaveh God gives Moshe all of the instructions for making the garments to be worn by the kohanim. The week after we read Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. The week after that we read Vayakhel, which is the actual construction of the mishkan, followed by Pekudei, which is the actual making of the garments for the kohanim. So we have two parshiot of the instructions, the story of the golden calf in between, and then two parshiot of the people executing the instructions and actually building the mishkan. So why the repetition, practically verbatim? Why say everything twice? 

To answer the first question: Dr. Robertson notes that it was common in Ancient Near East religions to have a temple text - a text that gave the dimensions and structure of the temple. She argues that though it might seem that parashat Terumah is the Torah’s version, actually the version that most closely mirrors the ANE temple texts is this week’s haftarah, when includes the dimensions of the first beit ha mikdash that Shlomo constructed. Terumah, with its repetitive language and omission of some key details, seems to be something else. Dr. Robertson notes that there is another tradition that has very similarly worded texts, and that is Buddhism and the concept of the mandala. 

As she defines them, “a mandala is a two- or three-dimensional representation of a god’s palace and its grounds.” Like the Temple in biblical tradition, which many rabbis argue is a microcosm of creation, a mandala is also understood to be a microcosm of the universe.” For those of you who, like me, had never heard of this term, the most obvious reference may be to if you have seen Buddhist monks make a physical mandala out of colored sand – a painstaking task that requires a tremendous attention to detail. As Robertson discusses, in addition to these physically constructed mandalas, however, there are mandalas formed in one’s imagination – and some feel that this visualized mandala is actually the real one, and that which is constructed is intended primarily to serve as a prop or support for the visualization exercise. In other words, monks spend a lot of energy and attention to a visualization exercise of building a god’s palace in their MINDS. And Robertson notes that “the texts associated with mandala construction are similar to the tabernacle text in their formality, in their high instance of repetition and – perhaps most notably – in their points of ambiguity, especially where different components of the structure come together.” In other words, the mandala texts are as perplexing as the Tabernacle texts! Just like the tabernacle text, which commands the construction of a menorah but doesn’t provide precise measurements and exact the detail, the mandala texts also skip those kinds of details. But this is because of bad writing. It is because the text was written in a way to engender visualization, NOT physical construction. Therefore, precise measurements and construction details weren’t included because they would be an impediment for the reader, or listener, to be able to properly build this tabernacle in their minds. And so, she suggests, the role of this week’s parsha is not to serve as blueprints, but rather to “bring [the reader] closer to that which one experiences in ritual performance.” In other words, she argues, these texts were not intended to serve as the instruction manual for how to build the mishkan. Rather, they were intended to serve as an opportunity for us to engage in a meditative exercise and envision the tabernacle in our minds. 

Now we turn to Dr. Robertson’s second question: why does the Torah repeat everything in Vayakhel-Pekudei? In the lit review of her dissertation, Dr. Robertson cites some previous biblical scholarship on the perplexing nature of the last ⅘ parshiot in Shemot. As she notes, one scholar writes that Exodus 35-39 (Vayakhel-Pekudei) is “utterly meaningless in terms of content … [it] would not be missed, if it were absent.” Another responds, “economy … plainly was not the Priestly Writer‟s [ideal].” - in other words, the text simply doesn’t care to be concise, the repetition is baffling, and all we can do is shrug and accept it.

But this leaves a lot to be desired. And so, Dr. Robertson turns to the work of a priest named Father Sean McEvenue. Father McEvenue questioned why the first Chapter of Breishit is so repetitive in talking about how God created the world. He answers that he believes parts of the Torah that are especially important for us to remember are intentionally repetitive. He compares the style to that of nursery rhymes, which tell stories and convey lessons in a highly repetitive nature. We nowadays think that only kids need that kind of repetition to be able to learn, and I imagine that most adults find repetition irritating - how many of us have had to read a child the same repetitive story over and over? But in truth repetition is very helpful for learning and internalizing information when you are listening to it. Repeating the same line over and over grounds you in the story. 

Dr. Robertson argues that McEvenue’s research applies to the tabernacle literature as well. It is all repeated to help us to be able to engage with it, and internalize it. The repetition is a valuable tool, not a nuisance. I loved the comparison that she draws between these parshiot, and the children’s book Goodnight Moon. The first half of the book introduces the child to every object in the room, including the picture of the cow jumping over the moon. The second half of the book says goodnight to every object in the room that we have just greeted. It is a serene, quiet book whose repetition helps children settle down and focus on going to sleep (ideally.) It is a way of calming a child and eliminating distractions.

So I imagine that by now some of you find this interesting, and some of you are wondering what on earth I am talking about and have I officially lost my sanity. But as I was reading her research I was so drawn to Dr. Robertson’s perspective. She asks great questions, and provides beautiful non-traditional answers that opens up a whole new way of thinking for us. What if these parshiot and parshiot of seemingly arduous detail are not blueprints? What if they are all intended as an exercise for us to focus, listen to the words of the text, and visualize the mishkan in our mind? What if the goal of the text is ultimately not for us to read about a structure that was built millenia ago and is forever gone, but instead for us to all gather together every year to engage in a ritual experience in which the tabernacle tests transcend time and become our own temples?

While I love this idea, I fully acknowledge that I don’t think I am quite ready to actually implement it myself. But in spite of that, I strongly appreciate the message. Don’t sit and fidget your way through these parshiot, waiting for the narrative to resume. Rather, stop and embrace the text for what it is, instead of just trying to go ahead. This message resonated particularly strongly this year in light of our guests last shabbos. Shlomo Gaison from Zusha gave a dvar Torah about the beauty of niggun, or wordless, repetitive song, and how stopping to sing nigunim can help focus us on a particular moment in a global world that is always moving at a fast pace. Now I am not really the niggun type, and also, I tend to appreciate efficiency. I am always looking at my watch waiting for the next thing - typical type A DC. And Shlomo spoke in a very repetitive manner - in truth, one could probably have summarized his whole dvar Torah in a paragraph. And yet, his presence really drew me in. He repeated his ideas over and over not because he was a bad speaker, but because it’s a way to help the listener focus on the content. I know that the problem wasn’t him, it was me. To me he represents what it must feel like to live in a different world in which you are present in individual moments, and not always racing to get through to the next step. Which is the precise role that the niggun, the repetitive and wordless song, plays in our religious experience. 

And so, I wanted to share Dr. Robertson’s work today because I think it gets to the heart of this message. Really, I think her point is that if we read these texts with a rational, scientific mind that we are all trained to have in contemporary Western society, you will be disappointed. You will be frustrated by ostensibly unnecessary repetition, and inadequate instruction. But if we think of them like the Buddhists think of a mandala - a slow, meditative, visual exercise then we can appreciate them on a whole new level. Just like Gaison argued for niggunim, perhaps we can see these texts not as being a nuisance for our lives, but rather a guide for them. Shabbat shalom.

Wed, May 22 2019 17 Iyyar 5779