August 23, 2019 |

7 Lbs, 6 Oz, and 50 Cubits

Tonight, in honor of our Shalom Zachar for the son born to Penina & myself this past Wednesday morning, I wanted to find something in the parsha that would be interesting to talk about, and relevant to my newfound role as father of 2 sons.

But then I realized it was Parshat Terumah.

Parshat Terumah is, charitably, well, detail-oriented. This many cubits, that much material, this kind of wood and that manufacturing process – literally the nuts & bolts holding the mishkan together are specified in flabbergasting detail this week. After spending a mere 15 pesukim on the Ten Commandments, the Torah spends an entire parsha on architectural specs. And guess what we get next week? More specs. Followed by an equally detailed description two weeks later as the Israelite architects work through their checklist, virtually copying & pasting the text from this week & next week, with some exceptions.

I had always wondered about this, and while there are words to be said about some of the differences between the spec in Terumah/Tetzave and the execution on Vayakhel/Pekudei, the overarching difficulty remains – why is this important and why so much detail?

Flipping through the tongue-twisting verses, one begins to stop focusing on the details and start looking for larger-scale patterns – here are the “kelim”, here are the physical specifications, here is the description of the Ark and it’s cherubs, the seat of holiness from where God issues instructions – and some connections/similarities between them. The parsha starts to look like a genotype, specifying in occasionally mind-numbing detail the base pairs from which the phenotype – the mishkan -- will eventually emerge.

When our son was born this week, he too is an immediate expression of incredibly detailed genes – how he is physically structured, how his different systems need to interact, a description of the brain and the cerebrum, the seat of consciousness from where his emerging “I” will someday issue instructions.

Yet for all the meticulous expression of divine will or genetics that the mishkan and a newborn represent, both cases are clearly only a starting point. The irony in these parhsiyot is that for all the detail in the mishkan, it’s not clear how well it worked. We have little detail about what went on during the Israelites’ 40-year trip through the desert, and by the accounts of the end of their sojourn, not much changed in their faith in God or their leaders over that time. They still demand water, they give in to the temptations of the Midianites, Moshe is endlessly frustrated. God described a specific architecture, the Israelites built it, and still it didn’t function as designed.

Our son emerged, miraculously, fully formed and functional, although he still has so much to learn. His genes are what they are, and they will continue to affect his personality, temperament, interests, susceptibility to illness, and passions. What he, and all of us, have, however, is the seemingly infinite ability to take a perfect execution of an intricate design, and bend it to our will, to choose whether we want it to serve a valued purpose or spend 40 years (or 120) wandering around in circles. Penina & I will do our best to help guide him on his journey, and we are sure Gil will throw in his two cents as well. If our baby son someday wants to skim these detailed parshiyot as many of us do, that’s just fine with me. His mishkan will be what he makes of it, beyond just the sum of its many and detailed parts.

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Jack Kustanowitz

Joined: July 15, 2007

Jack is an Internet professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He is a proud alum of the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ as well as Boston University, where he was active at BU Hillel.

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Shulamit E. Kustanowitz gained an intimacy with Jewish tradition as the daughter of a Conservative rabbi and as a Modern Orthodox adult. She authored A First Haggadah in 1979 and Henrietta Szold, Israel's Helping Hand in 1990. In 2006 her first novel, Murder at the Minyan, was published. Her...

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