December 8, 2022 |

T'rumah - Pure Gold

My daughter's Bat Mitzvah d'var. I helped, but she wrote it.

Shabbat Shalom, everyone! Today, I'll be teaching you a bit about Parashat Terumah. Terumah contains G-d's instructions to Moses about how the Israelites should build the Tabernacle, or "Mishkan" and the "Aron," the Ark. Now, I’m already all dressed up for my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve got my kippah, I’ve got my talis, but I'm given to understand that when one goes in search of the lost ark of the covenant, there is a particular set of vestments that it’s traditional to wear. *Pulls on leather jacket, bullwhip, and fedora*

Now, on to parashat Terumah. Terumah is the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, and as I was reading, something caught my attention. The Parasha contains many references to pure gold; in Hebrew, "zahav tahor.” Not everything to be made of gold was specified as tahor, though. Many things are listed as gold--as "zahav"--but not as "tahor," such as the clasps for holding the cloths of the tabernacle shut, the sockets on the side of the arc, the gold molding around the ark, and many others. The Aron, however, the Ark, was to be covered in pure gold, inside and out, as was the shulchan, the table for the showbread. The menorah and the cover for the ark were also specified as pure gold.

So we have a mystery: What is this pure gold? What does it mean? What is this concept of purity, of tahor, that is used so selectively throughout this parasha?

My first thought was that it simply meant metallurgical purity. However, the menorah is instructed to be built out of a talent of pure gold, and a talent is about 75 pounds. Can you imagine a menorah built of 24 karat gold that weighed 75 pounds? It would sag, and it would set the Tabernacle on fire! Somehow, I don’t think G-d would instruct the Israelites to build him a fire hazard.

Another thought is that tahor means the gold was ritually purified, but if so, why use "zahav tahor" instead of "zahav m’tohar," the word for purified? Also, to purify something made of metal, you "toyvel" it, or in other words, submerge it in boiling water. This doesn't work, since the aron was said to contain objects such as a staff and a jar of mana that shouldn’t have been wetted for fear of damaging them. Toyveling the ark every time it became impure would be impossible to do without rotting the staff and weakening the jar. That doesn’t make sense. Besides, pouring boiling water over the words of G-d seems a little disrespectful, doesn’t it?

That didn’t make sense, so I moved on. What if, I wondered, the Parasha meant that the objects made of or covered in pure gold were simply forbidden from being desecrated? However, in the face of what Torah describes as multiple captures of the ark by other nations, this idea doesn’t hold up. Every time it was captured, it would have been made impure, and as we’ve seen, it would be impossible to purify. And you can’t simply make a new one every time the old one is captured. For example, the instructions for the cover describe two k’ruvim, two cherubs to decorate the ark. These cherubs are to be hammered work. Now as it happens, I’ve done a little jewelry making at camp. To do hammered work of the scale the parasha demands for the k’ruvim would take years. I’m sure it would mention it somewhere in the Tanakh if someone spent years of their life building a new one every time the thing was captured.

At this point, I went to Rabbi Rubin and explained that I wanted a new parasha.
No, not really, but I did seriously consider it.

Maybe I was looking at this too literally. Maybe the adjective tahor was in reference to pure intent. Perhaps the gold described as pure was only that which was given for pure reasons. Then I wondered how you could tell the "pure" gold from the "regular" gold. Would the priests put pure gold in one pot and impure gold in another pot? How could they tell? And how could they avoid violating the commandment not to shame people in front of their community? Perhaps, I thought, they could place the gold in different pots behind a screen. But if they did that, people would forever be wondering whether their gold had been good enough. And wondering if your gold had been good enough, wondering if you had been good enough, every time you looked at the ark would make it a very bad symbol, don’t you think?

The only idea I could come up with that really made sense to me was that pure meant that it was impossible to desecrate. That once these things were made, they would be forever holy no matter what happened to them. We had a chance to devote ourselves to this project, to pour our devotion to G-d into this project. To make an earthly resting place for the presence of G-d. And if we did, that link to G-d would be eternal. This made a lot of sense, and not just because my other ideas didn’t. It made sense because that usage of tahor actually shows up in other parts of the Torah. It’s used in Lev. 11:36 to describe a mikvah of water, a gathering of water, that was forever pure. In fact, the Israelites would bring the ashes of a dead, impure animal to it, and it would remain pure. And so I believe that tahor means the same thing here. So now I ask, what did this mean for the Israelites, and what does it mean for us today?

This means that whatever happens, not all is lost. These things may have been desecrated by Antiochus during the time of the Maccabees, but still they remained pure. These things were lost to Philistine armies and reclaimed over and over again, but still they remained pure. This tells us that there will always be something holy in our world, that we can always count on the presence of G-d to be with us.

If this is the correct interpretation, we may even carry it a bit further. Kabbalists and scholars such as the great medieval rabbi known as the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels) have described the tabernacle and the world as being microcosm and macrocosm. They say that the tabernacle is a microcosm of the world. In the Talmudic tractate Yoma, the rabbis teach that "any student of Torah who is not the same on the inside as on the outside, is not a true student of Torah.” Their support for this is based upon the commandment in our parasha: “Cover [the ark] with a layer of pure gold on the inside and the outside.” The Talmudic commentators even extend the metaphor, explaining: if the tabernacle is the world, then the aron is like the human spirit. A midrash compares the Tabernacle to a human body, and in that body, the aron is the lev, the heart, the shulchan, the table, is the stomach, and the menorah is the mind.

So if these are tahor, if they are forever holy and pure, then what Parashat Terumah tells us is that there is within us something which is forever holy, something which is forever pure, something godly-- something that is tahor.

Shabbat Shalom!


Manny Jacobowitz

Joined: December 12, 2010

Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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Al Kustanowitz

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Al Kustanowitz is a speaker, lecturer, and entertainer in the field of Jewish humor. He is the author of nine books on Jewish humor and Blogger-in-Chief at Jewish Humor Central. He is the Aba of three extremely talented children and the Saba of five brilliant (and cute) grandchildren. Start every...

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