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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
As we read the opening lines of Terumah, we witness a shift from the drama of Yetziyat Mitzrayim to the detailed narrative of Bnei Yisrael constructing the Mishkan, their portable Sanctuary in the desert.
This part of the Torah occupies one-third of the book of Shemot and spans five parshiyot (Terumah, Tetzaveh, half of Ki Tissa, Vayakhel, and Pekudei). It is interrupted only by the story of the Golden Calf. Why is it so long, and so detailed?
In Bereishit, God’s creation of the entire universe is described in just thirty-four verses. Why focus on the Mishkan, which was just a temporary structure for Bnei Yisrael, later replaced by the Temple?
More than that, the Mishkan’s inclusion in the book of Shemot is puzzling. Shemot is about the birth of a nation. It covers slavery, Paroh, the 10 Plagues, the Exodus, the journey through the sea, and the Aseret Hadibrot given at Har Sinai – events central to the people’s collective memory. The Mishkan, where korbanot were offered, seems more aligned with Vayikra, the book of priestly matters. Why is it here?
The transition from Bereishit to Shemot marks Bnei Yisrael’s evolution from a family to a nation. In Mitzrayim, they were a single extended family; when they left, they were a sizable people united by shared fate and memory. But they struggled to share responsibility for their future.
In Shemot, Bnei Yisrael, unused to freedom, were passive and prone to complaint. They depended on Moshe and God for provision and safety. At setbacks, they were disgruntled, highlighting their lack of cohesion and unwillingness to take responsibility.
Even God’s greatest act, the revelation at Har Sinai – a momentous event where He appeared to the entire nation – only held them together for forty days before they sinned and made the Golden Calf. If even the greatest miracles couldn’t transform them, what could?
The answer came unexpectedly. God told Moshe to engage the people in building the Mishkan. They were to contribute materials, skills, and time to create a symbolic home for God’s presence. This task didn’t require grandeur or permanence; it required participation and contribution.
The response was overwhelming. The people’s generosity led to an excess of materials. Moshe actually had to ask them to stop contributing. During the whole time the Mishkan was being constructed, there were no complaints, no rebellions, no problems. What all the signs and wonders failed to do, the construction of the Mishkan succeeded in doing. It transformed the people. It turned them into a cohesive group. It gave them a sense of responsibility and identity.
In this context, the story of the Mishkan was the essential element in the birth of a nation. No wonder it is told at length; no surprise that it belongs to the book of Shemot, and there is nothing ephemeral about it. The Mishkan did not last forever, but the lesson it taught did: It is not what God does for us that transforms us, but what we do for God.
A free society is best symbolised by the Mishkan. It is the home we build together. It is only by becoming builders that we turn from subjects to citizens. We have to earn our freedom by what we give. It cannot be given to us as an unearned gift. It is what we do, not what is done to us, that makes us free. That is a lesson as accurate today as it was then.
Around the Shabbat Table
- Think about a time when you had to work collaboratively to create something. How did this experience change your relationship with the people you were working with?
- How does the Mishkan project compare with other times in Tanach when people built together?
- Why do you think Bnei Yisrael were so motivated to donate to the Mishkan? Can you picture what inspired them?
Parsha in Passing
The Israelites were tasked with providing thirteen different materials for the construction of the Mishkan. These materials included metals like gold, silver, and copper; dyed wool in shades of blue, purple, and red; flax, goat hair; various animal skins, wood, oils, spices, and precious stones.
Moshe received elaborate guidelines on Har Sinai for crafting the Mishkan for God. Some of the details are as follows: Within the most sacred area of the Mishkan, concealed by a beautiful curtain called the Parochet, stood the Aron. This Aron housed the Luchot inscribed with the Aseret Hadibrot. Atop the Aron were two keruvim made from pure gold, with wings outstretched. The Mishkan’s outer section featured the Menorah with seven branches, and a table set with the lechem panim.
Encircling the Mishkan and its copper-coated Mizbeach (Altar) was a courtyard defined by linen curtains held by wooden posts. Adorned with silver hooks and trimmings, these posts were anchored firmly into the ground with copper stakes.
The overall design of the Mishkan allowed for easy disassembly, transport, and reassembly during Bnei Yisrael’s travels through the desert. The Mishkan accompanied Bnei Yisrael until the Beit Hamikdash was built in Yerushalayim during the time of Shlomo HaMelech.
Hashem: This is the next step in coming closer to each other; build Me a House that is like no other.
The Mishkan: A temporary home where You may dwell. Your people have built me, and they made me so well. I will journey with them ‘til my time is through… until the Beit Hamikdash is built, I’m here to serve You.
Bnei Yisrael: Our everyday life as a people has started. And memories fade of the seas that were parted. So now we’ll connect to God day-to-day, by building the Mishkan we’re paving the way.
The Mishkan Materials: We are the crimson, the purple, the blue – just on our own there’s no meaning for you. But donated by Bnei Yisrael, so inspired, we create a House for our God, and our beauty is admired.
This week we navigate our people’s transition from being a family to becoming a nation. How did this transformation occur? Until Yetziyat Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael were primarily a large family bound together by kinship and shared ancestry. The physical journey from Egypt also enabled their spiritual journey into a nation. This process was not just about increasing numbers but also about developing a collective identity and shared responsibility.
Rabbi Sacks emphasises the significance of the communal project of building the Mishkan. While Bnei Yisrael had previously relied on God’s miracles and Moshe’s leadership, the construction of the Mishkan required active participation from every community member, regardless of their background or skills. It was not just about creating a physical space for worship; it was a symbolic act that cultivated unity, collaboration, and a sense of purpose among the diverse groups of Israelites. The building of the Mishkan represents a shift from being subjects of Divine rescue to becoming active participants in their destiny.
It’s time to play “Terumah Towers!” Let’s take a cue from Bnei Yisrael and find a way to come together as a family and build something new. Using handy nearby items like playing cards, straws, forks, or popsicle sticks, what kind of structures can you create together? Each player takes turns to add a piece, collaborating to make the structure as large or creative as possible… without anything collapsing!
Parshat Terumah is all about the idea of working together. When Bnei Yisrael built the Mishkan, everyone chipped in. It wasn’t just about donating gold or beautiful fabric; it was about being a part of something big that brought everyone closer.
So, what does this mean for us? How can we replicate the Mishkan building experience even though we lack the physical Mishkan today?
Whether giving some money to tzedakah, volunteering, or finding other opportunities for chessed, the underlying idea is finding a way to pitch in. Here’s the thing: there are so many ways to help, and donating to a communal project will look different for every person.
A good thing to ask yourself then is, how do you like to get involved? What feels meaningful to you?
Just Add Colour
Once, there was a bustling construction site where a brand-new neighbourhood was being built, with plans for many homes, parks and schools for families. All the children were excited about their new neighbours and the fun they would have with their new friends when they moved in.
But one day, quite unexpectedly, the construction stopped. There were no more supplies, and so the workers left, leaving only a foundation hole and a few concrete blocks behind. The children were heartbroken, as their dreams of a new neighbourhood were put on hold. The site stayed empty, grey and cold.
Then one morning, a little boy had a bright idea. With his paintbrushes and colourful paints in hand, he approached a large concrete block at the abandoned site, and began to paint.
He created vibrant scenes of sunshine, blue skies, and green fields. There were flowers, aeroplanes, lions, butterflies, and beautiful colourful patterns. Other local children joined in, hesitant at first – and then with so much enthusiasm. Together, they transformed the lonely grey blocks into a gallery of joyful art.
Their creativity and teamwork caught the community’s attention, breathing new life into the halted project. Local businesses offered to donate materials, parents organised fundraisers, and the workers, inspired by the children’s art, returned to complete the construction.
In the end, the buildings were not just structures; they became symbols of hope and community spirit. And guess what? The children’s painted blocks were integrated into the new playgrounds and gardens all around the new neighbourhood. A colourful reminder of how creating something beautiful together is one of the best activities of all.
Let’s say you were asked to create something that could bring your community together. What would it be, and why? What materials would you need? What jobs would you delegate?
Question: In which two parshiyot can we find a passuk containing three repetitions of the same five words?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
The passuk in Terumah repeats “v’chaftor tachat shney hakanim mimenah” three times (Shemot 25:35). The same phrase occurs in parshat Vayakhel (Shemot 37:21), also repeated three times.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks