Terumah: Insecurity

Moses relays a long list of rules to the Israelites and conducts two covenant ceremonies affirming the Israelites’ allegiance to God in last week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The portion ends with Moses climbing farther up Mount Sinai, then waiting seven days until God summons him into the cloud on top.

Then Moses entered the midst of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus/Shemot 24:18)

During those forty days Moses listens to more instructions from God. But these instructions are not rules of conduct; they are plans for more religious ritual. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites so they will bring me a terumah. From everyone whose heart prompts him, accept a terumah.” (Exodus 25:1)

terumah (תְּרוּמָה) = contribution; tribute (to God); something dedicated as holy by being elevated. (From the root verb ram, רום = be high, be exalted, be lifted up.)

The voluntary contributions that God calls for are gold, silver, copper, colorful yarns, fine linen, hides, acacia wood, oil, spices, and precious stones. After listing these materials, God says:

“And let them make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I myself show you, the design of the dwelling-place and the design of all its implements, thus you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)

The rest of the Torah portion consists of God’s explicit instructions for the design of the portable tent-sanctuary and its ark, bread table, lampstand, and exterior altar.1 In next week’s portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:9), God continues with instructions for the priests’ vestments, their ordination ritual, and the incense altar.

Why does God suddenly ask for all these appurtenances of a religion? Why is it no longer enough for the Israelites to follow God’s pillar of cloud and fire to Canaan, and act according to all the rules God commands through Moses?

A theory of jumbled time

One theory is that God’s instructions for a sanctuary are a response to the Golden Calf, the idol the Israelites make on Moses’ fortieth day in the cloud on Mount Sinai. The people crave a concrete object to represent God, preferably something that God will enter and be present in the way gods in other religions enter idols. So God provides a substitute for an idol: a beautiful building with precious ritual objects. And God promises to enter and inhabit this building, so God will be “dwelling among them”.

But why would God start giving Moses instructions for the sanctuary several weeks before the Israelites make the idol? Some commentators2 have responded with the declaration, “There is no before and after in the Torah”, a principle that the Talmud tractate uses to resolve discrepancies in dates within the Hebrew Bible.3 According to this Talmudic principle, the events in the book of Exodus were not written in chronological order anyway, so God actually did call for the sanctuary after the Golden Calf incident. The sanctuary was a concession to (and redirection of) the surviving Israelites after the most blatant Golden Calf worshipers were killed.

A theory of affection

A theory of affection

Other commentators have countered that the events in the book of Exodus are arranged in chronological order. That means God wanted the Israelites to build a sanctuary all along; the making of the Golden Calf merely interrupted the divine plan for a while.

A less time-insensitive Talmudic approach states:

… God’s original intention was to build a Temple for the Jewish people after they had entered the land of Israel. … it is written “And let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”, i.e. even while they were still in the desert, which indicates that due to their closeness to God, they enjoyed greater affection and He therefore advanced what would originally have come later. (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 62b)4

Ramban (a.k.a. 13th century rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachminides) promoted this theory in the 13th century. Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explained:

“In Ramban’s reading, the Israelites have been transformed by their encounter ‘face-to-face’ with God; they have received the basic commandments and committed themselves to fulfilling them; to affirm this, they have entered into a Covenant with God.  … In Ramban’s reading, the idea of a sanctuary for god in their midst is a token of transformation: after the Revelation and the Covenant, they have become fit vessels for the Presence of God.”5

A theory of second thoughts

I think God calls for a sanctuary and priests because God suspects something like the Golden Calf will happen—unless the people’s anxiety about God’s invisibility is addressed some other way.

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by James Tissot, 1896

At first the God character believes in the Israelites’ enthusiastic allegiance to God immediately after the revelation.7 That is why God invites Moses to hike back up the mountain for a permanent copy of the rules, not for a sanctuary design.

And God said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain, and I will be there, and I will give you stone tablets with the teachings and the commands that I have inscribed to teach them.” (Exodus 24:12)

But then, perhaps during the seven days while Moses is waiting for God to invite him into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai top receive the stone tablets, God reconsiders.

After all, the anthropomorphic God character in the first five books of the bible is not omniscient, and does not know what human beings are going to do. This God character is also moody, and sometimes has second thoughts.8

What if the people all promised to obey everything God said simply out of fear? After all, they were terrified by feeling the earthquake, seeing the lightning and smoke and fire, and hearing the thunder and the blare of horns.9 They could not even distinguish between seeing and hearing,10 and they begged to be excused from hearing God speak.11

Then the anthropomorphic God character might remember how before the Israelites and their fellow travelers arrived at Mount Sinai, any setback caused them to despair and lose faith that God would bring them safely to Canaan. Even the miraculous pillar of cloud and fire that led them to Mount Sinai was not enough to make them trust in God. They are too anxious and insecure.

When Moses and Aaron first presented their demand to Pharaoh, Pharaoh increased the workload of the Israelites who were slaving on his building projects. Moses tried to reassure that God still planned to rescue them,

… but they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of wind and hard service. (Exodus 6:9)

After the ten plagues, a divine pillar of cloud and fire leads the Israelites out of Egypt.

And the Israelites were departing with a high hand. Then the Egyptians chased after them and overtook them [where they were] camped by the sea—all the horses of Pharaoh’s chariots and the riders and his force … And [the Israelites] were very afraid. And the Israelites cried out to God. And they said to Moses: “Was it that there were no graves in Egypt, so you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:8-11)

Even after the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and watched the Egyptian army drown, they grumble on the journey to Mount Sinai whenever they get hungry or thirsty: at Marah,12 in the wilderness of Sin,13 and at Refidim.14 Each time God provides for them, but they do not trust God to provide the next time. At Refidim,

… they tested God, saying: “Is God in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:7)

All this grumbling reflects an inability to believe God really will bring them to Canaan and give the land to them. The miracles God performs on demand have no long-term effect on these people.

Clearly something else is needed to cause the people to become confirmed God worshippers.

By the time Moses enters the cloud at the top of Mount Sinai, the God character has decided to give Moses instructions for making the new religion more compelling. So God calls for priests wearing impressive costumes, who will sacrifice offerings on a copper altar in front of a tent-sanctuary with walls woven out of blue, purple, and red yarn in a pattern of winged beasts. The priests themselves must remain in a state of reverence, so God assigns them additional rituals involving the gold objects inside the tent, which only they can enter.

And everything must be portable, because the Israelites need visible sacredness as soon as possible; they are too insecure to wait until they can build a permanent temple in Canaan.

These instructions take a long time to deliver. And by the time Moses descends at the end of the fortieth day, carrying the stone tablets, it is too late; the Israelites are worshiping the Golden Calf. It takes a lot of deaths before both the Israelites and the God character get back on track, and the people start making the sanctuary.

Recently I led a Friday evening service on Zoom. I sang the prayers, but everyone else was muted so I could not hear them singing with me. I spoke to the faces on my laptop about the Torah portion and the meaning of Shabbat. I chatted with a few people after the closing blessings. It was better than nothing, but I felt empty as I signed off.

I needed to be with real people in a sacred space. Like the Israelites, I needed a more three-dimensional religion.

  1. See my blog posts: Terumah: Wood Inside, Terumah: Tree of Light, Terumah:Under Cover, Terumah: Bread of Faces, Terumah: Heavy Metals, and Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Including Shemot Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma circa 500 C.E., Rashi (the authoratative rabbi Shlonoh Yitzchaki) in the 11th century C.E., and Obadiah Sforno in the 16th century C.E.
  3. Rav Menashiya bar Taḥlifa said in the name of Rav: That is to say that there is no earlier and later, i.e., there is no absolute chronological order, in the Torah, as events that occurred later in time can appear earlier in the Torah.” (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 6b, translated by www.sefaria.org.)
  4. Translation by www.sefaria.org.
  5. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,  Doubleday, New York, p. 316.
  6. Ibid, p. 320.
  7. Exodus 19:8, 24:7.
  8. One example is Genesis 6:5-6, when the God character regrets making the world and decides to destroy it with a flood.
  9. Exodus 19:16-20.
  10. Exodus 20:15 translated literally, says: Then all the people were seeing the thunderclaps and the flames and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw, they were shaken and they stood at a distance.
  11. Exodus 20:16.
  12. Exodus 15:22-25.
  13. Exodus 16:2-12.
  14. Exodus 17:1-6.

One thought on “Terumah: Insecurity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s