This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Noam Weinreich
“Speak to Bnai Yisrael that they should take for Me terumah.”
In context, terumah clearly refers to a gift or an offering, and G-d proceeds to list examples such as gold, silver, wools and precious stones. However, it seems to be utilized specifically when giving gifts to G-d (see for example Shemot 30:13, Bamidbar 31:52).
The root “ramah” means to raise up. Giving “Terumah” therefore means that the items themselves, once gold and silver, are now gems in the service of G-d, serving a more uplifted purpose.
However, Rabbi Yaakov Nagen pointed out to me that the Bahir (97), a relatively old Kabbalistic work, interprets this verse differently.
Rabbi Berachiah sat and expounded:
What is the meaning of the verse “that they should take for Me terumah”?
It means, “Lift Me up with your prayers.”
The Bahir understands the commandment as G-d commanding the Jewish people to elevate Him. While the Bahir refers to prayer specifically, in context the terumah is used to construct the Mishkan.
The question then becomes: In what sense can G-d be elevated by the construction of the Mishkan? Quite the opposite seems true: the Mishkan serves as a “home” for G-d on earth. G-d says as much in verse 8: “veshokhanti b’tokham,” “I will dwell among them.” (“Shokhanti” has the connotation of establishing a home.) G-d is descending, so to speak, from the heavens to the His home on earth, the Mishkan.
However, one symbol in the Mishkan corroborates our understanding that the Mishkan involves a metaphor for “uplifting” G-d. The Keruvim, which stood atop the Aron, were understood as the “seat” or throne of G-d (see Shmuel II 6:2 and Divrei Hayamim I 13:6, both of which describe G-d as seated on the Keruvim.) If the Keruvim serve as a seat for G-d, why do they have wings? What do these wings symbolize? The simplest symbolic understanding of wings is that they are used for flight, to uplift something. The metaphorical ‘seat of G-d’ was given wings so that it could rise.
Therefore: while the Mishkan serves as a location to which G-d can “descend,” its true purpose is to subsequently “elevate” Him. G-d descends to the Mishkan to instruct the Jewish people how to best conduct their lives. When we follow his commandments, not only do we uplift ourselves, but G-d Himself is “uplifted.”
There are at least two ways to interpret this metaphor. One way is that when we follow G-d’s commandments, we make our own world closer to “heaven,” or closer to perfection. By utilizing the Mishkan in order to actualize the ideals G-d has set for us, our world becomes “the heavens,” and G-d’s descent to us is no longer as much of a descent. Seen in this light, the primary purpose of the Mishkan is to ‘uplift’ ourselves, and only secondarily to ‘uplift’ G-d by making His ‘descent’ less deep.
A perhaps bolder explanation is that by following G-d’s commandments, we directly elevate G-d’s stature. As an analogy, the sign of a great teacher, or a great father, is the success of his students or children. While a teacher or father might have great potential, or great methods, their greatness as teachers or fathers only becomes actualized when their students achieve their potential. When we act in the way G-d commands us, we actualize G-d’s greatness as our G-d, and in a sense cause him to be greater than he was before.
Noam Weinreich (SBM 2014) is a sophomore at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.