Parashat T’rumah

February 20, 2021

by Bettijane Eisenpreis

“Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing in the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you and I will impart with you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”  – Exodus 25: 21-22

The word “T’rumah,” is translated as “gifts.” This parashah and many of the chapters that follow outline God’s instructions for the building of the desert tabernacle and the gifts of building materials that the Israelites must donate to the project. Many of the specifications are fantastic – scholars have debated for years how a nomadic people wandering in the desert can obtain “dolphins’ skins” – and there is ample doubt as to whether such a structure was ever built.

What is remarkable is the detail with which the process for building the desert sanctuary is described. Let’s not quibble about where the Israelites were going to find dolphin skins in the desert. The important thing was that this people, fresh out of slavery, is devoting themselves to building a portable sanctuary of remarkable beauty so that they can worship their God.

But is this just a sanctuary for worship? After all, God does say, “There I will meet with you…” Is God promising some sort of person-to-person (or rather God-to-people) meeting with the Israelites? Even Moses, the only individual to whom the Lord spoke “face to face,” never actually saw the Divine presence. For centuries, the commandment, “thou shalt make no graven image” has been central to our religion, because of the fear it could lead to idolatry. The punishment meted out to human beings who attempted to glimpse God’s face was always swift and terrible.

If we look more closely at this passage, we can see that no actual physical meeting is going to take place. The Ark is to hold the “Pact,” which will contain God’s commandments as to how the Israelites are to live. Once the Pact is in and the Ark doors are closed, there will be two cherubim on top, fantastic beings who “shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” And God will speak from “above the cover.

Note that the cherubim are not even looking at each other; their faces are turned downward so that they cannot glimpse the Being who is above the cover. Or is there a Being there at all? Is it just a voice? We do not know.

The desert sanctuary – real or imagined — must have been very important to the Israelites. Many of its details were incorporated into the Temple in Jerusalem and some have even been preserved in our modern synagogues – the most important being the Ark of the Covenant. Because of the importance the Hebrews attach to this sanctuary, we can see that they are on their way to becoming “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” There have been many tragedies along the way, but we have never lost sight of that mission.