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Terumah

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.


Terumah by Tzemah Yoreh :: 5774

Tzemah Yoreh earned his PhD in Bible from Hebrew University in 2004. He's written numerous books on biblical narrative and humanist liturgy. As a teacher in academic and community settings alike, he enjoys helping people discover sides of the Bible they never knew.

The repetition of Parshiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh at the end of Shmot is nothing short of remarkable. Every piece of furniture, every priestly vestment, and every instruction regarding the dimensions and the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle is repeated in VaYakhel and Pekudei. This ten-chapter demonstration of divine command and human compliance may make life boring and difficult for the Torah reader, but emphasizes beyond any doubt that Moses followed God's command to the letter. In fact the most common expression in Pekudei is "as God had commanded Moses." In Priestly writing (the Priestly source, or P, is one of the Torah's four sources posited by the documentary hypothesis, and mostly focuses on matters of concern to Priests such as the Tabernacle and sacrifice), meticulous observance without any independent thoughts or actions is the hallmark of righteousness. When one does not follow God's command in this part of the Torah one is burnt to a crisp, as Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, find out after offering fire to God without being commanded to do so. If following God's commands is the only measure of righteousness then these parshiyot stress the point that Moses was the most righteous of men; no one in the entire Bible is described as following God's commands more than him.

I've offered an explanation for why Terumah and Tetzaveh were repeated nearly verbatim in Vayekhel and Pekudei, but this doesn't answer why these parshiyot were written in the first place! The Tabernacle was a desert artifact and there is no practical reason to record its exact dimensions and its contents. (The first temple's design is similar, but its design is delineated in I Kings) So why list all these minutiae – couldn't the Torah have simply listed the general dimensions and a short list of the Tabernacle's furniture?

This is not the only time meticulous minutiae, such as lists of names, places, and dates, are recorded in Priestly writing. These lists which ostensibly have no didactic significance don't seem to serve any other discernable purpose except perhaps for chronicling. Examples of this type of material abound, such as genealogies in Gen. 5, 11, 36, lists of stations on Israel’s journey throughout the desert (e.g. Num. 33), cities (e.g. Josh. 14–21), and censuses (e.g. Num. 1–3).

So why are they there? In my mind, the primary reason for the addition of these details is that they impart an authenticity and authority which cannot be conveyed as readily through a good story, or even by laws. The human mind is trained to accept exact, quantitative information of the sort provided by these lists at face value—we are more inclined to accept as authoritative a figure like 54.3%, for example, than the verbal description “more than half,” even when both are equally true. By inundating the reader with lists, the author of these lists attempts to enhance the authority of the Bible, and to ensure that his version of events is accepted over possible alternatives. Why is this Priestly author specifically concerned with authenticity? Well the priests were one of the most powerful groups in Ancient Israel, they would have the most to lose if the Torah's authority was doubted.

The reason, therefore, for recording the lists of furniture and the exact dimensions of the Tabernacle is a subtle attempt to convince us that the Tabernacle was the real deal, that it actually existed and that Moses actually built it. We are wowed by all the exact details in Terumah and then we are doubly wowed by the repetition of these same details in Pekudei.

What lesson can we learn from this? Well, everyone appreciates a good story, but ironically it is actually these meticulous details, which most of us have difficulty reading that play such a critical role in safe guarding the authenticity of the Torah. Perhaps this insight will give us a little more appreciation for these details and patience to read them more thoughtfully.

Shabbat Shalom!

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