Parashas Terumah
Building God a House

In this week’s Parsha God speaks to Moses instructing him to tell the people of Israel to take for her a portion. In the text which begins chapter twenty five of Exodus, God instructs Moses to take gold, silver and copper, turquoise, linen and scarlet wool, red dyed ram skins and even the mystical tachash. God goes on to give Moses instructions on how to build her a house, a sanctuary, the Mishkan.

For millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years single celled life forms dominated the world’s oceans. They were probably everywhere, with conditions like an incubator waiting to grow. Then at one moment in time, at one place in the herstory of life on earth, one cell entered another and it survived. This probably happened before, maybe not quite right, but this time it clicked and something new happened that had never happened before in the history of earth. The cell forms underwent a complex series of transformations and cooperation as one cell essentially died within the other cell. The odds of such an event occurring are very very low, and the conditions aren’t completely understandable, but from this one event, all life on earth owes its existence.

We are just one planet within one solar system in our small band of the milky way galaxy. Each galaxy in the universe contains on average several hundred billion stars. Scientists estimate that there are perhaps two trillion galaxies in the known universe and they are even beginning to map the visible universe which to me looks like the roots of a tree or the branches of a Menorah. That’s not even the end of the story though, because some quantum scientists theorize there is a multiverse, that the universe is not just expanding into nothing but that it is actually part of a regional multiverse.

In the Lurianic tradition of Kabbalah, God has expanded herself into this entire universe. She has, as the originator of all space and time, filled everything in the universe with her presence and yet in order to make space for women and men she creates a space in the universe, a void where she self constricts in order to make room for humanity. This makes me think, of course, of the Star Trek episode the Metamorphosis where the Star Trek crew finds themselves stranded on an asteroid with a mysterious presence. The crew discovers the Companion an electro-magnetic life form indigenous to the asteroid and of course they also find a man, Zephraim Cochrane, who has mysteriously lived on the asteroid for hundreds of years never aging because of the Companion who has made space on her asteroid for this handsome man. In spite of its profound misogyny there is a little bit of Kabbalah in the story.

Returning to Exodus, we find that God has given Moses a set of instructions on how to build the ark, the table where sacrifice will take place, the Cherubim make their appearance here, which as Rabbi has often reminded us, are facing each other and the space in-between as Martin Buber writes, is where we find God, face to face in community with each other.

The Parsha goes on to give a fairly complicated set of instructions on how to build the arc. The builders are to use acacia wood and gold, silver and copper, they are to sew together rams skins and goat hair, they are to bind up and make rings and dishes and spoons and to sheet everything with precious metals. The Menorah itself is to be made of one piece of gold, everything in the Menorah is precious and it is unified as a whole piece, it is not to be made of separate parts, every almond shape and leaf, every branch of the Menorah is made in loving detail and it’s branches are to be slightly angled toward the center light, symbolizing God.

For me, as an artist, this is one of my favorite Parsha in Torah and as I write this reflection there is a cat playing with the tassel of my Tanakh and I am keeping an eye every now and then on the weather. We are often distracted by the small things in life like cats or the weather but these are constant and steadfast reminders of our connection to the force of that life that runs through everything, from that first cell which divided that gives all living things their form and inter-relatedness to the weather which itself is a kind of life. The motion of the primitive oceans, their changes in salinity, alkaline composition, temperature, density, these motions of the physical world are just as responsible for the origin of life as that first act of DNA replication. All these motions are related and they are all life.

I often reflect on the great chain of death and suffering which has led to the existence we know. The predation and the evolutionary strategies which have evolved at random in our evolutionary history are shocking, to look at a world where predation, violence, competition and mass extinction are regular parts of an entire life form’s narrative, but this too is life and it is part of the story of building the world which in our tradition God has made space for.

When God instructs Moses to build an arc I see it as an invitation to meet all of life, all of our complex herstory as a life form, from the amazing moment of those first cells creating DNA replication to the terrible brokenness of our Anthropocene world today it is all beautiful and it is all contained within that amazing space of awareness about the uniqueness of this moment and this point of time in our meeting together. I think my own little Shul, which shares space with a welcoming congregation, meeting together every week to eat bagels and read Torah. The word T’rumah which is spelled tav raish vav mem heh means an elevated offering. In the Hebrew, the word can be separated into two parts, the letter mem whose numerical value is 40 symbolizing the 40 years we wandered in the desert and the letters tav raish vav heh which can be rearranged to spell the word Torah.

Recently I had a chance to visit an exhibit of the photographs of Henryk Ross, a photographer who was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto, one of many ghettos the Nazi’s created to capture and exploit Jews before shipping them off to the death camps. The ghettos were often created out of already lived space, where fences and walls were built to impoverish entire populations of Jews. In the Lodz Ghetto, over 100,000 Jews were starved to death and another 120,000 shipped off to the death camps in a period of four years.

One of the most moving images in the exhibit by Henryk Ross documents the destruction of the Synagogue in Lodz, where a man can be seen holding Torah Scrolls which he has saved even as the Synagogue has been destroyed. Here we see in this one photograph of the destruction of yet another synagogue, yet another meeting space, another community, but in the midst of this devastation the most essential object has been saved, the Torah.

Our Torah, this symbol of our portable community, this reliquary object fulfills every precious instruction God has given Moses in Terumah. God has given Moses a set of instruction, to create a beloved community, to offer the people a chance to express themselves and for everyone, all the people, to joyfully participate in building a Mishkan, a shared space of community, celebration and life.


Anna Thompson is a writer, artist and cat lover who lives in Portland Oregon with her partner and six cats. She loves writing about sex, gender and religion.

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