What can we learn from Parashat Terumah? The Torah is filled with stories and lessons that bring to life the tremendous energy of creation, the subsequent interpersonal intrigue, and the personal growth that follows Hashem’s creation of man and woman.
Terumah is, for the most part, a segment of the Torah that enumerates the details and dimensions of B’nai Yisrael building the Mishkan [The Tabernacle] in the desert. I chose to study this relatively detail-oriented Parasha, not for my love of architecture or measurement, but to honor the memory of my father, Stanley Nussbaum, z”l, who died 15 years ago this week. As a lifelong fine arts and photography teacher, I wonder how he would have interpreted the numerous Pesukim that blueprint the dimensions and details of building the Mishkan. Remembering how much he loved to put things together; building and creating anything from a table to an elaborate Purim costume, I imagine he would have read this Parasha and likened it to those hyper-detailed yet elusively vague IKEA directions which he viewed as a personal challenge.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks makes a similar connection in his D’var Torah entitled, “Why We Value What We Make.” He writes that “There is no comparison whatsoever between building the Mishkan…and something as secular as self-assembly furniture. On a human level, however, there are psychological parallels.” Simply said, people value what they create – they value having skin in the game. When creating or building something that involves “work, energy, and time,” people feel invested. “If you want people to value something, get them to participate in creating it…The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us.” Rabbi Sacks implores.
So why is Parashat Terumah devoted to building a temporal “thing” to house Hashem? Surely Hashem doesn’t need a building. In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses man’s “enslavement to things” and urges us to create a Sabbath, “…it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” Today we do not have a Mishkan, but we do have Shabbat, which Heschel calls a “sanctity in time.”
Heschel goes on to explain, “There is no equivalent word for ‘thing’ in Biblical Hebrew. The word ‘davar’ which in modern Hebrew became to denote ‘thing,’ means, in Biblical Hebrew: speech; word; message; report; tidings; advice; …promise;…saying; utterance; occupation; acts; good deeds…but never ‘thing.’” The Bible’s notion of “thinghood” lies in our everyday interactions and communication. It is not only a building like the Mishkan or a day of rest that can create a “sanctity in time,” but, if the notion of “thinghood” is expanded to include the biblical definitions of “davar,” our daily experiences and conversations can also be elevated.
Rabbi Sacks writes that “Terumah…means not just something we give, but something we lift up.” With a broader definition of temporal and spiritual “things,” each of us has the opportunity to build and uplift the spaces, the Mishkanot, we inhabit. Each day, I see the reward of investing in hard work at SSDS where we challenge all our students by giving them the responsibility to create in both their learning and their relationships with peers and teachers. At SSDS, our community both gives and lifts each other up. I am pretty sure my dad would be proud of the “Mishkan ” we are building.