The construction of the tabernacle sets the tone for the ongoing need for community-building.
As a person who loves building projects, I find Terumah’s intricate description of the blueprint and materials needed for the construction of the Mishkan more exciting than most.
Reviewed again and again, the Torah takes the precision of holy space’s construction quite seriously.
The building of the tabernacle is a watershed moment in the history and emergence of our people. The dedication of a central hub for worship (and sacrifice) will serve as the focal point of Jewish life and practice for the next 1,000 years.
The vast majority of this week’s portion (all but nine sentences) is filled with the nitty-gritty details that describe what will become the locust point of Jewish life. However, it is in the opening lines that we find the most radical and inspirational aspects.
“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them” (Exodus 25:2). Though this might not seem like such a unique instruction, the implication here is of the upmost importance. Every person is not only welcome to contribute, but without their gifts, we would be unable to do the work of building the institutions necessary to sustain our community.
The text goes on to list the different types of gifts that one may bring to contribute. They range from that which you would expect, like gold and silver, to that which may leave you perplexed — dolphin skins, for example. (We’ll have to leave the question of where exactly one finds a dolphin in the desert for another time.) In summarizing, the famous commentator Rashi understands there to be 13 categories of gifts one may bring.
As we know, 13 is a special number in our tradition. While the age of b’nai mitzvah might be the first thing that comes to mind, 13 is also the number of attributes of God, which are the different ways we can experience Divinity in the world.
From this, we learn that the work of building the tabernacle is as complex and diverse as our community. Just four weeks ago, we read that the Israelites came up out of Egypt as an erev rav, a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38). Now, as we begin to build the infrastructure of our peoplehood, we see not only the importance, but also the power of that diversity.
In its instruction to us the Torah is quite clear: We need you, all of you, moved by your own heart, in order to make our community possible.
In the climatic conclusion of the command to construct the Mishkan, we read V’asu li mikdash, v’shachnti b’tocham, “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” These words, commonly found etched into the walls of our contemporary congregations, are a reminder that it is on us to bring Divinity into this world; we are the builders of community, and every one of us has a unique and precious gift to offer.
Rabbi Ari Witkin is the director of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit.