Parashat Terumah: Contributing to the Tabernacle

Parashat Terumah begins with the commandment, “You shall take for Me a contribution…” This verse can actually be seen as a heading for all the coming parashot through the end of the Book of Exodus, which detail the construction of the Tabernacle and its vessels. There are two commandments in the opening passage to Parashat Terumah: to take a contribution and to construct the Tabernacle and its vessels.

At first sight it seems that the principle commandment is to construct the Tabernacle, while taking the donation is the relatively secondary issue. Yet, the order of the verses presents a different picture. First comes the commandment “You shall take for Me a contribution,” followed by the details of all the materials contributed to the Tabernacle, “Gold and silver and copper…” while the commandment to actually construct the Tabernacle only appears later, “You shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” This order suggests that the contribution is important in and of itself. Indeed, theparashah is called Terumah (תְּרוּמָה), meaning “contribution,” after this commandment to take a contribution.

So, we see that the parashah focuses on two different commandments that are similarly worded, “Take for Me a contribution” and, “Construct for Me a sanctuary.”

The upward aspiration

To understand the connection between these two commandments, let us turn to the words of the Zohar (quoted in the Tanya) on the verse, “You shall take for Me a contribution.” The Zohar states something very cryptic. It says that the words “for Me” mean that by giving a contribution we are, as it were, taking God Himself! What can this mean?

One important expression explained in the inner dimension of the Torah is “run and return” (רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב), the movement of the angels described in Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot. Chassidut teaches us that “run and return” is not only a movement practiced by ethereal Heavenly creatures, but pertains to our human souls, too. It refers to a type of up-and-down pendulum swing of the soul, which runs thirstily towards its Heavenly source in God and then returns to mundane reality, then bounces back upwards and down once again, ad infinitum, like an alternating electric current that oscillates in an infinite up-down movement.

The contribution to the Tabernacle is an excellent example of the upward “run” (רָצוֹא) of the soul. In fact, the word “contribution” (תְּרוּמָה) is derived from the verb “to elevate” (לְהָרִים). By giving away a part of our livelihood, earned by the sweat of our brows, to a worthy cause, we raise ourselves Heavenwards in self-sacrificial devotion. This is expressed in Parashat Terumah in the words, “From every man whose heart inspires him to generosity” – one’s contribution to the Tabernacle is a movement of the heart that aspires higher and higher.

In this upward aspiration of “running” (רָצוֹא), the vector force points upwards towards absolute infinity, to such an elevated level that it can neither be defined nor given a name, above all of the created worlds and even above all of God’s Holy Names; to His very essence. The Zohar thus means to teach us the profound idea that by taking the contribution, we are in a certain way taking God Himself. The soul runs and rises directly towards God’s essence in a deep sense of “There is none beside Him” and, “God is All.”

The downward return

However, if we allow the soul to run to the infinite in this way, it will simply disappear and become nullified in its elevated source like a drop of water, which once absorbed in the ocean, can never be identified again. This would actually be the soul’s greatest pleasure! Yet, together with our upward run we “bump-into” God, who says, “go back down!” as stated in the Book of Formation, “If your heart has run – return to your place.” The upward run has a very important purpose, as long as it includes within it, from its initiation, the ability to return to our mundane reality as creations and reveal God’s purpose here on earth.

We were created with the purpose of making God a dwelling place below. This is the second commandment in Parashat Terumah, “They shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell within them.” Take all the tremendous energy that is invested in your contribution, all the great run of the heart to reach spiritual heights, and form them into the Tabernacle and its vessels; form the vessels with which and in which the Divine Presence will dwell here on earth. Indeed, that the Divine Presence resides below is an even greater wonder than the upwards run, because nullifying our souls within God’s spiritual singularity is actually easier for the soul than to bring Divinity down with us to dwell in this world within the physical confines of a sanctuary; be it the Tabernacle or the sanctified body of each and every Jewish individual.

The heart and the fountain

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov illustrates the secret of the word, “for Me” (לִי) by explaining that the letterlamed (ל) represents lower wisdom and the letter yud (י) represents higher wisdom. These two types of wisdom are exemplified in the teacher-student relationship, where the teacher represents higher wisdom and the student, receiving his teacher’s wisdom, represents lower wisdom. The form of the letter lamed (ל) is described as, “a tower soaring in the air,” as it is the tallest letter, and its name,lamed (לַמֵד), means “learning” (לִמוּד). Thus, the lamed represents the lower wisdom of the student’s heart aspiring to hear his teacher’s words and understand them. For his part, the teacher must present his wisdom in such a way that it sits well in the student’s heart. This is represented by the letter yud(י) the smallest letter, whose form resembles a point, symbolizing the essential point of the source of wisdom as it appears in the mind ex-nihilo, like a flash of lightning. The correct relationship between the student’s lamed (ל) and the rabbi’s yud (י) forms the word “for Me” (לִי).

Elsewhere in his writings, Rebbe Nachman relates the story of the “Heart and the fountain”: the world’s heart longs to reach the fountain and the fountain also longs for the heart. The heart is the student who greatly thirsts after the fountain, the rabbi who is “a flowing river, the source of wisdom” (נַחַל נוֹבֵעַ מְקוֹר חָכְמָה) who wishes to bestow his wisdom upon his student. Still, for all their longing for one another, in his parable Rebbe Nachman describes that connecting the two is no simple matter. Yet, when the connection is made between them, then the heart and the fountain unite and the lamed and the yud form the word “for Me” (לִי).

How does this relate to the two verses in Parashat Terumah that contain this word? The heart’s contribution is mentioned first, rising up from below, like the student’s lamed, “lower wisdom.” Then comes the commandment to construct the Tabernacle for the Divine Presence, representing the teacher’s yud, “higher wisdom” as it descends successfully and is accepted in the student’s heart. Connecting the teacher with the student and uniting the “run” with the “return” forms the word “for Me” (לִי), which links the two focuses: “You shall take for Me a contribution” and, “You shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.”

Connecting the two words, “for Me” (לִי) in these two commandments alludes to the sages’ teaching on the phrase, “red eyed from wine” (חַכְלִילִי עֵינָיִם מִיַיִן): “Every palate that tastes it [the wine] says, ‘for me, for me’.” The flavor of the finest wine is when the heart finds the fountain and the student’s yearning is fulfilled by his teacher’s influence. Lechaim, lechaim!

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