This week's portion: the gifts

Weaving parashat Terumah into our lives (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion back in 2006 for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy!

"As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them..."

My shul is in the process of commissioning new Torah mantles right now, from a Judaic weaver whose work I have long admired. Her designs will feature the mountains and the trees that make the view from our sanctuary so glorious, along with quotes from the liturgy and from Psalms about trees and mountains. I can't help seeing a resonance between the work she'll be doing, and the work once done by the children of Israel described in this week's Torah portion. With these loops, and cloths, and brilliant yarns, we create a wrapping beautiful enough to protect the words of Torah, one of our primary points of connection with God.

There's a lot of heady commentary on this Torah portion. Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan weaves together Aviva Zornberg's two interpretations of the portion, exploring how the mishkan relates to the episode of the Golden Calf (which hasn't happened yet, in this year's lectionary, but apparently time isn't a linear construct in the mind of the rabbis). Yoni Tuchman writes dense exegesis of the cherubim, and of why we're seeing what looks remarkably like a graven image so soon after the injunction to eschew them.

It is possible to make of this text a metaphysical treatise on the nature of representation and the boundaries of idolatry, but it takes some mental acrobatics. In the plainest sense, on the pshat or surface level, this is a Torah portion about craftsmanship, construction, and cloth.

As Anatomy of a Dwelling reminds us, no fewer than thirteen weeks' worth of Torah portions in the book of Exodus are devoted to the details of how the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was meant to be built. ("In contrast," the folks at Chabad point out, "the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe and three chapters to the revelation at Mount Sinai, and conveys many complex laws by means of a single verse, or even a single word or letter.") It's easy for the modern shul-goer to glaze over during these weeks in the Torah reading cycle. Types of wood, colors of thread, bells and breastplates: what relevance can we find in these long instructions for creating ritual items we outgrew so many centuries ago?

Plenty, if we read these verses like poetry. Just look at the start of chapter 26, about the fabrication of the Mishkan's tent. Standard interpretation tells us that blue, crimson, and purple were the costliest shades of dye, but these ways of beautifying also have an imagistic resonance with the colors of the sunrise and sunset sky. The gold and copper clasps, fifty apiece, are embodied metaphors: they bind disparate pieces into a unitary whole. In a poem, a tent made from the two kinds of skins the Torah specifies might represent the synthesis of land and sea, the coming-together of opposites. What brings these images together is the metaphor of weaving, connecting threads into a something seamless and all of a piece.

For Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the whole point of creation was the construction of the Mishkan, a place where God could dwell in the "lower realms" of creation and human consciousness. Creating that space for God is still our purpose; and though we no longer do it by following this pattern, we can extraopolate here some new instructions for the work of building God's home in the world.

First of all, the home we build for God's presence should be beautiful. The Torah instructs us to place the words of God -- the stone tablets, crystallization of revelation -- in an ark of wood surrounded by gold. That ark, in turn, is covered by a golden kapporet with cherubim, angelic figures like the ones guarding Eden, hammered on it. And atop that assembly comes the tri-layer tent, beginning with a spectacular linen layer emblazoned with color.

The most spectacular coverings won't be visible on the outside, of course, which leads to the second big theme of these instructions: the home we build for God's presence should have layers within layers. Cover the tablets, Torah tells us, with layers of wood and gold. Cover those with layers of weaving: first brilliant linen, then goat's-hair blankets, then a tent of ram's hide and dolphin-skin. Make protective coverings to guard the teachings beneath. If weaving represents unity, e pluribus unum, then the section about the layers of the Mishkan teaches us to create unity within unity, because coming together in unity is how we honor the Torah and honor God.

All three layers of the Mishkan's tent carry the symbolism of weaving, but the innermost one bears some special threadwork: keruvim ma'aseh choshev, "a design of cherubs" (or, more literally, "cherubs, the work of a designer.") Opinions differ on what exactly this meant: double-faced weaving? Linen fabric, inked with design? One way or another, this innermost weaving is unlike the other layers, because -- like the kapporet -- this resplendent weave of color and sparkle features two cherubim looking at one another.

Cherubim will appear a third time in this week's Torah portion, in the description of the parokhet, the inner curtain which screens the Holiest of Holies from view. In each of these three places, the cherubim appear in a pair. They are in constant relationship, each the I to the other's Thou. Maybe that's what they're meant to remind us: that beneath our many layers and levels of self-protective defense mechanisms, relationship is the final doorway through which we can find God. In the warp and weft of our relationships, we can create the tapestry of community -- and the more richly and attentively we can weave ourselves together, the more honor we do to the God Whose words are at the center of our lives.