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God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to donate materials and to make a sanctuary – a Mishkan – in order that God may dwell amongst the people as they journey. The parasha then outlines extensive details about how the Mishkan is to be built.

Another voice

Terumah by Clive Lawton :: 5766

Clive Lawton, one of Limmud’s founders is now its Senior Consultant. He is scholar in residence at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, an award-winning educator, and works worldwide, within and outwith the Jewish world, as a consultant in educational, community and leadership development.

Was it wrong of me for my heart to fall when I was asked to write about Terumah? Weeks and weeks of dramatic narrative and tales of derring-do, only interrupted by sublime legislation and inspirational moral and social challenges, and what do I get? A proto-IKEA flat-pack temple instruction manual - columns and columns of apparently tedious detail about knops (what's a knop?) and just about the only engaging feature to catch the eye being the extravagant use of 'sealskin' (according to my translation anyway - where did they find seals in the wilderness?) or, if you don't like that, takhash skins from some mythical takhash animal that most commentators don't want to identify.

All my first instincts are to do what our classical commentators do - take refuge in symbolism. It may seem boring, they seem to say, but actually, the planks represent this and the rings represent that and before you know it, hey presto, it's not about a desert building at all but a manual for social order or moral behaviour or something.

But then I got to thinking about the p'shat - the literal meaning, the actual nuts and bolts of it (a phrase which for once is not metaphorical!) What must it have been like?

Obviously the throng of Israelites carried some pretty heavy duty stuff around with them. They were not impoverished and many will have had fine jewellery, beautiful clothes, perhaps quite impressive tents and wagons. But the one thing they didn't have was a building. Making the mishkan (tabernacle) provided the Israelites with the most surprising thing of all in the wilderness - a lavish building. There was nothing make-shift about the mishkan. Except that it was portable, it had all the features and solidity of a real permanent building - and it was dramatic; colourful, multi-textured, gleaming and glittering in the sun, glowing in the sunset, casting the one non-fluttering shadow as the sun rose across the camp.

What startling wonder it must have provoked! Did the Israelites grow used to it, always around, just another feature of the landscape, or was it always so unlikely, so incongruous, that spotting it out of the corner of your eye, or walking across its shadow as you went to fetch water or share a spot of manna with a neighbour, it always carried a challenge and a demand? No doubt the Jerusalem Temple was stunning, but it was in a city - and by all accounts, at least in Solomon's day, surrounded by some other pretty impressive buildings.

But this thing... Can we conceive of any equivalent in our lives today? Does TV and cinema so dull the senses that nothing much surprises us? Have we got so jaded that even last week's oddity becomes this week's commonplace? What is our mishkan? What brings us up short in our ordinary world and reminds us of the utter utterness of God and His presence amongst us?

We do now again have a kind of mishkan, the thing that does in the absence of a permanent Temple. It's our synagogues - and some of them are beautiful (and some of them are not!) but I doubt that they stun us often or disorientate us, or drive us to think of the ineffable gap between us and God. Perhaps the best we can do in the 21st century, is each week try to find something or somewhere that will play that part of for us and regularly try and experience that gut-stabbing shock of seeing something that absolutely shouldn't be there because it's simply too challengingly real in our transient world.


More by Clive Lawton

Another voice by Joel Grishaver

Joel is the creative chair of Torah Aura Productions, has written many books that create cutting edge Jewish learning, tells stories, teaches texts, and creates transformative experiences.

Rosh Chodesh Adar: My Favourite Jewish Text

Adar - The Month of Joy

"Joy is the strongest vitamin, because joy makes you strong in a million ways, physically, mentally and spiritually. There are all kinds of strength, and the highest level of strength, which a person needs to live in the world is joy."

When we talk about Adar, there is only one place to go, "When Adar enters our joy increases" (Talmud, Taanit 29a). The place to go to study joy is Nachman of Bretzlav (18th century chassidic leader). Who better than a spiritual Rebbe suffering from depression to understand joy? Nachman teaches: "Joy is the strongest vitamin, because joy makes you strong in a million ways, physically, mentally and spiritually. There are all kinds of strength, and the highest level of strength, which a person needs to live in the world is joy." Nice sentiment. May work for a holiday park, but how do we understand joy?

Reb Shlomo taught that Reb Nachman taught: What is the difference between sadness and joy? Joy really fills you; whatever you have is fuller, and sadness empties you out, 'I don't have this, I don't have that,' so even what you have you don't have. People walk around sad because they don't know what to do with their future. You have this minute right now. What are you doing with it? The difference between sadness and joy is very simple. Sadness always tells you, 'oh man! What are you going to do in ten minutes? What will you do ten years from now?' If you are really filled with joy for one minute, then you will know what to do the next minute also."

Here Shlomo teaches that Nachman teaches a beautiful Buddhist lesson. "Be in the moment." The idea being, on a deeper level, that sadness comes from worrying about the past or worrying about the future. Focusing on the present allows the centre of your life being your relationship with God. Joy is a moment to moment connection to God. Shlomo continues: "What is God giving you? He is giving you this minute. He hasn't given tomorrow; He promised He would give tomorrow. Of course I don't know what to do tomorrow, because I didn't receive it yet. Sadness is very much concerned with what I don't have, and I really don't have tomorrow yet."

If joy is a radical experience of the present, what is sorrow? Shlomo said that Reb Nachman said, "Sadness is a sickness, not an emotional problem. It is absolutely a sickness and you have to get rid of it. Rabbi Baal Shem Tov says if you want to know whether you are really serving God, it is simple. If …each time I do something good my heart is filled with joy, I am serving God. If I am not on that level, then I am just doing mechanical things. That is very holy, I'll be rewarded in Heaven for it, but it is heartbreaking."

Adar is the month of Purim. Purim comes with celebration. It is our job to make it a month of the renewal of joy. Once again, Shlomo teaches that Reb Nachman teaches, "When you smile filled with joy, and you look at somebody, they look back at you, when you cry they can't really look back at you. You can smile eye to eye, but you can't cry eye to eye." Adar is a time to fight sadness and build joy. It is a time to connect to the present tense reality of God in our life—and to smile at each other.

Shlomo's version of Nachman texts from the Holy Beggars' Gazette, Vol 2 No 3. San Francisco, 5734. Transcribed by (Rabbi) Elana Rappaport Schechter


More by Joel Grishaver

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  • 5771 (Jacqueline Nicholls)
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  • 5773 (Shaiya Rothberg)
  • 5773 (Daniel Vulkan)
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