Parshat Terumah: The Magic of Things

Last night, my 8-year-old asked me to explain what a noun is. “Sure,” I said, “it’s word that describes a person, place, or thing.”

This puzzled him. “Isn’t everything a thing?”

“Well, yes. And no. Plato kind of thought that way: He said everything is a concept. But in this case, ‘thing’ means something you can touch, feel, or visit.”

“Oh.”

So he worked his way down his spelling list, trying to identify the nouns, and stopped again.

“What about ‘together’?” he asked. “’Together’ is a thing.”

I could see what he meant. Technically, ‘together’ is an adverb; it describes how we do things. Or an adjective: it describes us as we do them. But ‘together’ can also feel bigger than that; the noun “togetherness” doesn’t even do that feeling justice -- “togetherness” separates the people from the thing they are feeling, from the way they are being. “Together,” on the other hand, describes action, people, state of being, and feeling all at once. Like love, it’s a thing.

Eight-year-olds are natural philosophers. But they can only tolerate so much nuanced discussion of a point. “Is it or isn’t it a noun, Mama?”

“You’re right, in a way,” I told him, “but on the test, keep ‘together’ out of the noun column.”

Parshat Terumah begins at the top of Mt Sinai, with a list of nouns: words describing things. But not just any things: terumot (physical contributions or gifts) from community members to God.

“YHVH spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece” (Ex: 25: 1-7).

These are not just raw materials casually picked up off the ground or off a tree. Consider for a moment the human skill and labor required to produce each of these material gifts; behind each of these nouns is several implied verbs: mine, and melt; plant, harvest, spin and dye; tend, catch, skin, tan; chop, saw, sculpt, sand; raise, cure, press; grow, dry; prospect and refine. So much individual human work behind each terumah, each offering of the heart. Their value is the physical beauty that results when humans work natural material with loving intention.

Jews have a value concept called hidur mitzvah: the Jewish action of using one’s labor or resources to beautify the physical object of a mitzvah (a commanded good deed). My favorite description of hidur mitzvah comes from the great scholar Rashi, as he describes the work of a Torah scribe:

“To display the beauty of the script and the splendor of its owner who toiled to become beautiful through the mitzvah as it states, 'This is my G-d and I will glorify Him,' (Shemot 15:2), be comely with mitzvot- a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sefer Torah with beautiful parchment, beautiful ink and an expert scribe.” - Rashi, Meseches Yoma, s.v. L'Haros.

In Rashi’s view of hidur mitzvah, intention, action, and physical product are all one; to “toil to become beautiful through the mitzvah” describes a way of living in which art, prayer, beauty, and labor are not separate from each other. Together, they are a thing. In this first passage of Terumah, where each Israelite whose heart so moves them is asked to offer their holy creation to God as a gift, holy craftsmanship starts with the heart; all the attention to artful detail is merely an extension of that initial desire to contribute.

Art begins from the heart. This I knew. What I find so surprisingly lovely in Rashi is the splendor he sees in the artist who is trying to become beautiful by creating something beautiful.

Artists don’t always see splendor in themselves. Just as parents, humbled by parenting, can lose sight of themselves in the toil of parenting or the splendor of their children, artists can fall prey to social constructs that see art as a noun instead of a verb, and forget that the art is both our process and our product. To be an artist is to constantly strive to answer one’s demons with beauty. Rashi’s kindness is to see the splendor in that, and in us.

But even after all this work, these artful terumot of the Israelites are not to be left as individual offerings -- for what use has God for random hunks of lapis lazuli? These terumot are all raw materials for the larger, communal project outlined in the next sentence: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex: 25: 8).

Here the instructions for artistry become even more refined: how to overlay the ark in pure gold, with cherubim on its cover; how to sculpt the lampstand, hammered from one piece of gold, with cups shaped “like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals” (Ex: 25: 33).

Now the sculptors and carpenters and stone-setters, the weavers, welders, and builders, are not working alone; they have a common project: to create a beautiful sanctuary, together.

Many of my communities, friends, and allies stood together in Philadelphia this week, as they have been standing most weeks since November 9, to create a sanctuary – for immigrants, minorities, all people who those now in power are encouraging others to target. To speak the following truth to power and to each other: Love will prevail. We will see to that. Together.

They did it with hidur mitzvah – with music, and prayer, and sparkles. They built sanctuary with each of their very different beautiful faces and bodies, and many more who couldn’t physically be there sent their terumot of love and money.

From half a world away, I read and followed and texted with some of them, feeling isolated and connected at the same time, wishing I could beam myself over and stand with them, offer my physical terumah to the communal project of building this beautiful sanctuary. But since I couldn’t, this Shabbat I offer my words, begun in my heart and labored over, given their initial polish and brought as a gift to the place of communal building, to be further refined and set into the larger structure of the sanctuary we are building together – where bold ideas, loving practice, and people of all kinds are protected. So that God may dwell among us.

Our holy work right now is to teach those who don't yet understand that the stronger move is always towards each other. That intention, action, product, and beauty are all one. That "together" is a thing.