Tetzaveh »
« Mishpatim


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 Jeremy Tabick :: 5775

Jeremy is a masters student in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and a long-term British Limmudnik. He has taught there, volunteered at the Beit Midrash and worked on several Limmud Chavruta publications. He works for Mechon Hadar, America’s first egalitarian yeshiva.

What’s the most interesting thing about the Mishkan (Tabernacle)? The fabric, of course!

While most people probably wouldn’t give that answer, I do think that it provides a fascinating window into the world of the Tanakh/Bible: how the writers conceived of God, and what that can mean for us today. We are told in Parashat Terumah that the curtains of the Mishkan have 'a design of cherubim worked into them' (Exodus 26:1). So what are these 'cherubim'?

First, they are certainly not the winged, chubby babies in Renaissance art you’re probably thinking of right now (which are in actual fact called “putti”). That said, the Tanakh is very scarce on descriptions of them.

Modern theories pose that cherubim are closely related to ancient near eastern sphinxes, such as those from Egypt and Syria. This is essentially based on two observations regarding their descriptions (they are associated with lions and clearly have wings, e.g. 1 Kings 7:29, Ezekiel 1:10, called cherubim in chapter 10); and two observations about their role:

  1. In Syrian temples, the god’s throne is often flanked by sphinxes;

  2. In Egyptian contexts, the sphinxes are guardians of the boundaries between gods and people.

Cherubim fulfill both of those roles in various contexts in the Tanakh:

  1. Cherubim flank the Throne of God in the Temple (1 Kings 6:23-36). Further, God is occasionally known as Adonai Tzeva’ot Yosheiv ba-K’ruvim , 'The Lord of Hosts Who is Enthroned on the Cherubim', which seems to be a direct reference to this image (see e.g. 1 Samuel 4:4, 2 Kings 19:15, Psalm 99:1);

  2. God stations cherubim to guard the way to the Tree of Life in Eden (Genesis 3:24, cf. Ezekiel 28).

So what is the purpose of the designs of cherubim woven into the fabric of the Mishkan? They certainly can’t have been as impressive or scary as those that stood in the inner sanctuary of the Temple. I think here they have returned to their guardian role, as for Eden. Just like the cherubim who guard the Ark of the Covenant also in this week’s parshah, the cherubim on the fabrics serve as a warning to unauthorised visitors. And what’s the warning? This is where God is.

Often today we want to emphasise the closeness of God to us, that we can all access God, that we can pray directly to God, that God cares deeply about us individually. But the account of the construction of the Mishkan is interested in the opposite: in creating distance between us and God. The Mishkan—the 'dwelling place of God on earth'—is the closest (physically) we can ever come to the Divine. The cherubim serve as a reminder: 'You who are about to approach God, don’t think that the Divine Presence is safe even here—for accompanying God are the fearsome cherubim.'

This too is an aspect of God: the God who causes earthquakes, who brings plagues, who commands fearsome beasts. The fabric of the Mishkan is a visual reminder that, however close we think we are to goodness and truth, there is a vast distance between us and the full picture.

God can’t be tamed any more than the cherubim can.


More by Jeremy Tabick

Another voice by Daniel Lichman

Daniel, a former RSY movement worker and Moishe House Resident, is a third year rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College. He struggles with decision making.

The distinctive smell of her flat welcomed me warmly as I entered and ascended the last few stairs, past the first row of packed book shelves; there she was, sitting in her chair in the corner of the sitting room, with a reading lamp, with yet more book shelves behind her and a pile of books by her side. I would look at all of them every time, coveting her collection: how wonderful to have read so much, to know so much! The words from the shelf were in her; these books adorning the walls were alive in her teaching. I imagined that she was a kite and the books the many strings connected as a web of ideas, people and life experience. Sometimes, when she was sick, she would teach her classes there in the flat.

She left many of her books to her students.

There we were and there they were,

all these words without her

disconnected strings falling to the ground

without the kite that once kept them taut.

They will fly again in some way. Separately, differently.

Parashat Terumah - meticulous instructions

to build a place that will evoke

the presence of Shekhinah.

What insight: that material objects can evoke such presence. And so they also evoke the absence which is left when the presence passes on.

In memory of Rabbi Sheila Shulman z'l 1936 - 2014.


More by Daniel Lichman

Other Divrei Torah on Terumah

  • 5766 (Clive Lawton)
  • 5766 (Joel Grishaver)
  • 5767 (Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Eliot Kaye)
  • 5768 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Fiona Brodie)
  • 5769 (Steve Kay Kupietzky)
  • 5770 (Samuel Klein)
  • 5771 (Adam Overlander-Kaye)
  • 5771 (Jacqueline Nicholls)
  • 5772 (Dina Pinner)
  • 5773 (Shaiya Rothberg)
  • 5773 (Daniel Vulkan)
  • 5774 (Tzemah Yoreh)