There is a special opinion, which the Talmud quotes in Tractate Bava Batra 14b: “Who wrote the Scriptures? – Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Bilaam.” If we start counting according to this opinion, the five books of the Torah are actually seven: Bereshit, Shemot, Vaikra, Bamidbar chapters 1-21, the story of Bilaam which the Torah records in Bamidbar chapters 22-24, Bamidbar chapters 25 to its end, and Devarim.
The story of Bilaam makes the bulk of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The tale of Bilaam (or Balaam, as tradition sometimes calls him) is one of those intriguing passages of the Torah that appear simple and straightforward on the surface, yet are complex when studied in detail. There is prose and poetry in the story. There is prophesy and the expectation of magic. There is money involved, and glory, and disappointment. We even make acquaintance with a talking donkey, able to see what people cannot.
The plot itself is rather simple. The Jewish people are at the gates of the Promised Land. King Balak of Moab, witness to all the Jewish triumphs against the bigger and stronger nations of the area, decides to hire Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Jewish people. With a reluctant permission from G-d, Bilaam goes with the emissaries of Balak and tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to utter a curse. Instead, in the end, he issues a famous blessing that has made its way even in our daily prayers: ”Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” – ”How good are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel!” (24:5)
But when we look closely at the details of the story, a whole new world of inferences, symbols and peculiar connections opens before our very eyes… Let’s explore it together!
The first is the connection – or, better said, connections in the plural – which the Torah makes with the Book of Genesis. Although it is placed in the midst of the Book of Bamidbar, the story of Bilaam abounds in Bereshit references.
For example, Bilaam tries to be like Abraham, and the Torah uses the same language as in the story of the Binding of Isaac: “Vaiakom Bilaam baboker va’yachvosh et atono” – “Balaam arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (22:21).
Also, the talking donkey of our parasha constitutes the second and only other instance in the Torah of an animal speaking, the first instance being when the serpent addresses Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1).
But the connections with the Book of Genesis go much deeper…
In chapter 22 verse 9, Hashem appears for the first time to Bilaam, immediately after the first set of envoys from King Balak arrive at his home: “G‑d came to Balaam and said: What do these emissaries want of you?” The language is parallel to that of the Book of Genesis, in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Abraham and Sarah. Curiously enough, in all these stories, the verse in question is always the 9th verse of the respective chapter. And – more importantly – in all these stories, G-d asks a rhetorical question to which He already knows the answer: ”Aieka? Where are you?”, He asks Adam in Genesis 3:9; “Where is Abel your brother?”, He inquires of Cain in Genesis 4:9; “Where is your wife Sarah?”, He asks Abraham in Genesis 18:9. In our parasha, the question is not one of location (“where”), but one of direction and purpose: “Where are you going? What do these people want with you?” (Numbers 22:9)
In all these cases, this question is only the trigger, and the continuation is always the same: exile. With Adam and Eve, G-d is about to punish them with exile from the Garden of Eden for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. With Cain and Abel, we are about to discover Cain’s punishment of exile for having murdered his brother Abel. With Abraham and Sarah, we are about to discover G-d’s promise to bring about the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), which – following the opinion of many commentators – marks the beginning of the 400 years of exile for Abraham and his descendants in a “land not their own”, according to G-d’s promise in Genesis 15:13.
Here too, in our parasha, Bilaam is about to undergo a deep and painful personal exile. First, we are told of high expectations, as King Balak tells Bilaam through his emissaries: “I know that he whom you bless is indeed blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (22:6). We learn about the wealth and honor being promised, presumably accompanied in Bilaam’s mind by a high status and a luxurious life at Balak’s court.
And then things start falling apart with every step along the way. First – in order to even attempt to become a hero of might and magic – Bilaam must leave the comfort of his home and go with the emissaries of Balak. As the Torah tells us, this in itself is an endeavor that G-d despises and is quickly to point out to him: “Do not go with them and do not curse that people, for they are blessed”, he tells Bilaam in 22:12. Then, a mere few verses later, G-d softens a bit, but makes it crystal clear Who is really in control here: “If these envoys come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (22:20)
Along the way, Bilaam’s next taste of exile is when he is ridiculed by his own talking donkey, able to see G-d’s angel when the great prophet Bilaam is blind and mute. Then he builds seven altars and offers sacrifices, only to discover that they are built and used in vain: his mouth just cannot bring itself to utter the fatal curse. Then Bilaam moves from place to place, trying to find a vantage point from where to sneak in at least a smaller, perhaps less fatal but still harm-inflicting curse. In the end – after a journey of failures and disappointments – the Torah puts a definitive end to Bilaam’s quest for evil glory by stating simply: “Then Bilaam set out on his journey back home.” (24:25) Broken, his reputation destroyed, his dreams of power and wealth shattered, Bilaam returns to his home with a simple life lesson: “Man proposes and G-d disposes.” Or, as they say in Yiddish: “Der mentsh trakht und G-t lakht.”
* * *
Of course, if it were only for the personal exile, the story of Bilaam might not have been as interesting… But the four oracles in the story, the four instances in which the Torah switches from prose to poetry in a mixture of reality and fortune-telling, take matters one level higher. The prophecies here contain references to the entire history of the Jewish nation. Bilaam talks about the promises G-d made to Jacob, about the Exodus from Egypt, about the forty years in the desert, about the battles G-d fought with Israel’s enemies of their behalf and – even more interesting – makes mention of Israel’s ultimate future.
In a few verses in the middle of the fourth and final of Bilaam’s oracles, the Torah tells us the following:
“I see it, but not now.
I view it, but it is not near.
A star rises from Jacob
And a scepter has shot forth from Israel,
And he shall strike down the sides of Moab
And undermine all the children of Seth.
Edom shall be a conquest
And Seir shall be a conquest of his enemies
And Israel will be triumphant.
Multiple interpretations were offered for these verses. They vary based on the commentator, the historical period of the commentary, as well as the focus of the interpretation.
For example, Ibn Ezra and others see in the verse “A star rises from Jacob” a reference to King David and his royal dynasty. Onkelos (the famous translation of the Torah into Aramaic), as well as Ramban (Nachmanides) see here a prophecy about the arrival of not only David, but also – from his lineage – the Mashiach, marking what we pray for every day: the establishment of G-d’s Kingdom in Israel and the whole world. The Midrash on Megillat Eicha – the famous Lamentation of the prophet Yeremiahu (Jeremiah) which we will read in only a few weeks on Tisha Be’Av – takes the verse in our parasha to mean a reference made by Rabbi Akiva to the rebellion of Bar Kochba, in the time of the Romans. In other words, a verse about three important concepts: the role of royalty, our quest to fight oppression and tyranny, and G-d’s ultimate redemption, the Messianic Era.
And then, of course, is the mentioning by Bilaam of all those foreign nations: Moab, Seth, Edom, Seir, Ir and – the Torah continues in the subsequent verses – Amalek, Cain, Ashur, Eber and the Kenites and Kittites. All – with the exception of Seth who is a symbol of mankind as a whole (Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, from which all humans descend) – are historical enemies of the Jewish people. But there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye, more specifically because of the way in which they became our enemies…
Moab is so bad that the Torah tells us in Devarim 23:4 to never allow a male Moabite to enter the Jewish people by conversion, “even in the tenth generation”. The reason is made apparent at the end of this week’s parasha: “While Israel settled in Shittim, the people defiled themselves by being promiscuous with Moabite women.” (25:1) The Midrash tells us that – in their zeal to corrupt and destroy – the Moabites send even their royal princesses to seduce Jews into immorality and idolatry. Such a reprehensible behaviour – where the destruction of the other is more important than respecting yourself and keeping away from self-defilement – was indicative of sinat chinam, a boundless and reasonless hatred, later embodied by anti-Semitism, persecutions and the Shoah. It was this hatred that disqualified the Moabites from ever joining the Jewish nation. (Strangely enough, Ruth the Moabite, a female, is the exception to the rule, as the Torah only made reference in its prohibition to male Moabites, which the Torah hold responsible for maintaining the societal morality at the time, in the context of a patriarchal society.)
With Amalek, the message is even easier to recognize. Throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, on multiple occasions, the Torah reminds us of Amalek’s evil and commands us to wipe out its memory and legacy, for “attacking the weak at the end of the convoy” and for “not fearing G-d”.
Cain – another name mentioned by Bilaam – is the universal human symbol of evil. He is the author of the first murder in history, perpetrated when G-d favours his brother’s sacrifice over his own. He is also the first to be so callous as to not care at all for his own brother, Abel, about whom he inquires: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 3:9). Cain is the incarnation of the dictums: “Every man for himself” and “The end justifies the means”, which are the complete opposite of the Jewish view of “Kol Israel arevim ze laze” – “Every Jew is responsible for one another” and “Ein mitzvah ha’ba be’aveira” – “A good deed fulfilled through a transgression is null and void.”
Edom, Seir and Ir are all – in the interpretation of Rashi and the Midrash – a symbol of Rome, the culture that always valued idolatry and promiscuity over monotheism and chastity.
And Ashur (Assyria), the Kenites, the Kittites and Eber are all symbols of Israel’s enemies in the times before entering the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. They are the nations that stood against – in the most literal manner – G-d’s plan of giving the Promised Land to the Jewish nation.
About all these nations, Bilaam’s prophecy declares that their ultimate fate is to fall before the Jews. In essence, the prophecy is the history of the Jewish people, intertwined with their destiny as G-d’s chosen people, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel’s destiny – in the hands of G-d as opposed to the hands of mortal kings – transpires in this prophecy as one of fulfillment and endurance.
* * *
We cannot thus be surprised that the two chapters of our week’s parasha have been imagined by the Talmud as a standalone book of the Torah. A summary of our history and destiny, a story of action and faith, of symbolism and connections, of promises and deceptions… A story of G-d’s ultimate goal: rebalancing the world through diminishing and rebuking of evil, corroborated with uplifting and encouraging the good, the spirituality, the morality and the strong attachment – both as individuals and as a nation – to G-d’s message for all humankind.
In today’s world, when values get so easily corrupted, when the lines between right and wrong are often blurred beyond recognition, the message of Parashat Balak is that we have to make our choices. Almost 3,500 years ago, Bilaam made his choice and lost everything. It is our duty today to choose the winning side, a side of morality, spirituality and devotion to G-d and his Torah. It is our duty to choose the destiny that was given us, one of acknowledging and living G-d’s blessings every day, every minute. It is our task to continue to walk – as our ancestors have walked in the past – the often difficult but always rewarding mesilat yesharim – the path of the upright. Or, to quote the very opening chapter of the true Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Upright, in the words of the Ramchal, Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato:
“The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lie in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth, the nature of his duty in the world, and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors, all the days of his life.”
Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on June 6, 2015
This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa and next week we read the portion known as Parah.
This week marks the yahrtzeit for my mother, Hadassah Leah Z”L bat Shimon HaCohen v’Miriam Goldah, and Monday would be her 54th birthday. A little known fact about my mom was her obsession with cows. Whenever I would go away, if I saw a cow I would buy it for her; my favourite, was Hugh Heifer from Build-a-Bear, or in this case, Cow. What better tribute can I do for her memory is to find a d’var torah that incorporates the cow’s prominent place in these weeks’ Parshiyot.
By reading about the golden calf, followed so closely with the Parah Adumah, we glimpse at the maturation of the priesthood.
After the tablets are broken, Moshe comes down and asks Aharon, “what happened?”
Aharon answers with “I don’t know, I threw the gold in the fire and it became the calf” (32:24 with artistic liberty).
This indicates a certain passivity and immaturity of Aharon, not taking ownership at this time.
This is in contrast to the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, who paradoxically turns both the impure pure and makes all the pure helpers impure in the process. This time, the priests actively help the impure person, by sacrificing themselves in the process, albeit temporarily.
My mom was a Bas Cohen which means that her dad is a Cohen. My mom had a roller coaster life with a lot of ‘setbacks’. It was so easy to be passive and give up, like Aharon and the egel. Instead, she rose above and many times she made a person feel special by sacrificing her wants and focusing in on the other person.
I am reminded of a time when once someone brought my mom a banana cake. Now my mom hated bananas to the degree that she would tell people she was allergic. Yet, she had a piece because it meant enough to the other person to bring it to her, and that the other person would not feel embarrassed.
If we all follow my mom’s example of putting another’s wants before our own; risking a day of impurity of uncomfortableness for another person. If we all do a little bit we will make the world a better place.
As I was surfing the web the other day, I came across a short video on a very interesting Youtube channel called Vsauce. In this video, Michael Stevens — a very charismatic and informative young man — was trying to answer a question as ancient as humanity itself: Why do we wear clothes?
Besides the usual reasons (e.g. to protect us against the cold, sun or wind), Michael was proposing a rather peculiar theory: we wear clothes because we are intelligent. In the animal world — Michael was explaining — when it comes to procreation, there are two main approaches: some animals spend the majority of their time producing offspring, while other animals spend the majority of their time taking care of their offspring.
People are part of the latter category. As mothers and fathers, we spend a lot more time taking care of our children then we spend producing new ones. The main reason for this behaviour is that our children actually need the care and attention we give them. Unlike many animals who can walk and even fly shortly after birth, we humans are born pretty helpless. As newborns, we cannot talk, we cannot walk, we cannot gather or cook our food, we cannot even protect ourselves against the cold or heat or any other dangers. Scientifically speaking, it seems this is connected to our intelligence in the sense that, in order for our mothers to be able to carry us in their womb, we need to be small enough. As such, when we are born, our brain (and the rest of our body, for that matter) is actually pretty small compared to what it will grow to be in an adult human. In short, humans are born “under-developped”, and only then, during our lifetime, we grow to be smarter, stronger and more independent.
And here is where our clothes come into play… If we would simply walk around naked, we would be more sexually attractive and, implicitly, we would procreate more. By covering our private parts, clothes create a kind of “social barrier”, keeping away potential mates and thus limiting the number of children we produce. Thus, we get more time to spend with our existing children, to whom we are now able to offer all the care and attention they need to survive and develop.
I must confess I did not particularly enjoy the explanation… While it made some sense, it seemed too convoluted and also too scientifically (or maybe “animal”?) oriented for my taste. You can only imagine my joy when, in reading Parashat Tetzaveh this week, I found in it a better, more nuanced and closer-to-my-soul explanation.
To be perfectly honest, I have to agree that our parsha does not attempt to answer Michael’s original question: “Why do we wear clothes?” However, it does answer a more particular version of it: “What purpose do clothes have in the context of spirituality?”
At the very onset on our parsha, G-d talks to Moses and says the following:
Now you bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the Children of Israel — Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron — to minister to Me. You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, לכבוד ולתפארת, for glory and for splendor.
An ancient proverb says that “clothing makes the man”. And this short fragment of the Torah seems, at first glance, to agree with this… As a matter of facts, the Jewish law and our Sages’ interpretations are very clear on the matter: no kohen can serve in the Tabernacle or the Temple unless they wear the special set of clothes described by the Torah in our parsha: the tunic, the breastplate, the robe, the head covering etc.
But what does לכבוד ולתפארת — “for glory and for splendor” — actually mean?
In his commentary on the verse, Ramban (Nachmanides) quotes no less than ten different sources from the Tanakh (from the books of Kings, Psalms, Daniel and the Prophets) to explain the role of clothes in creating “glory” and “splendour”. The Ramban talks extensively about the ability clothes have to bring upon the wearer a special status. The kohanim seemingly wear the clothes described by the Torah as they would a crown or a royal garb which elevate them from amidst the nation and place them on a pedestal of holiness.
But contrary to all of Ramban’s sources and interpretations, the idea that clothes elevate a person’s status to one of “glory and splendour” is completely new. Nowhere in the entire Torah until now can we find a verse or a paragraph that agrees with the idea that “clothing makes the man”.
Granted, some examples of people wearing clothes appear in the Torah as early as the first chapters in Genesis. But in all those episodes, the clothes bring up a completely different message…
The first human action immediately following the eating — against G-d’s commandment — from the Tree of Knowledge is to become aware of the lack of clothing: “I heard Your voice in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid.”, says Adam in Genesis 3:10.
Also, the first act of chesed, of loving-kindness, done by G-d immediately following the same episode is to make clothes for the first humans: “Adam called his wife’s name Eve (Chava, in Hebrew), because she had become the mother of all the living. And Hashem Elokim, G-d, made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them.”
A beautiful and amazing explanation on this verse comes from the former Chief-Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his commentary, Rabbi Sacks points out that the moment humans used clothes for the first time in history was also the very moment when they became aware of their own identity for the first time. The moment of wearing clothes coincides in Genesis with the moment the Torah uses, for the first time ever, the proper names for Adam and Eve. Until that time, they were simply called “ha-adam” (the man) and “ha-isha” (his wife).
So, to review until now: in the first chapters of Sefer Bereshit, the clothes are intrinsically related to shame, identity and the relationship between man and G-d.
But there are a lot of other episodes in the Torah where clothes carry a different kind of significance. For example: deceit. Joseph wears a “coat of many colours” which is used by his brothers to deceive their father, Jacob, into believing that Joseph is dead. Jacob himself uses the “clean garments” to trick his father into giving him the blessing of the first-born. Tamar sets aside her “widow garments” and dresses up as a prostitute in order to trap Yehudah into sleeping with her. And Joseph again “shaves and changes his clothing”, right before being summoned at the court of Egypt, in order to spare Pharaoh from seeing him in his dirty and torn prison clothes that he was forced to wear for two full years.
And there is also, of course, the story we will read in just a few days, on Purim, in which clothes are portrayed as a symbol of glory and shame. For example, Mordechai receives a special set of royal clothes when he is honoured by Haman. And Vashti, Achashverosh’s first wife, is asked to dance in front of the guests without any clothes on, wearing only her royal crown, as the Talmud points out.
So, what do we have so far? Shame, sexuality, identity, deceit, social status, ritual and the relationship between man and G-d. A rather solid list of symbols and ideas for some seemingly unimportant objects meant only to protect us from the elements and to proclaim that we are intelligent beings who need more time to raise our young. Isn’t it?…
But let’s go back to our original question: what purpose do clothes serve in Parshat Tetzaveh? Why is it so important that in the Mishkan, the kohanim wear these clothes “for glory and for splendour”, in order to be “sanctified” in the eyes of the people?
Sforno, one of the Medieval commentators on the Torah, has a very simple and yet very clever answer: the phrase לכבוד ולתפארת — “for glory and for splendour” does not refer to the kohanim at all. It actually talks about G-d Himself. Through their ritual clothing, the kohanim were attracting the people’s attention to the role they were performing in the Temple, namely to serve G-d. G-d was the One whose “glory and splendour” was promoted in the eyes of the onlookers. He was the One to Whom people prayed, the One towards Whom their thoughts, words and desires had to be directed in order to be answered.
In the Mishkan and later in the Temple, kohanim without their clothes would have been as “naked” as Adam and Even had been at the beginning: they would have been without identity, without purpose. However, once dressed in bigdei kehunah, once wearing the priestly garments, the kohanim were becoming symbols of a relationship stronger and more important than any one ritual. With their special clothes on, the kohanim were indeed a vessel for kedushah, for holiness, allowing people to communicate and interact with G-d.
And this is how things were for many hundreds of years…
But after the Destruction of the Temple and the onset of the Diaspora, the special kohanim clothes lost their significance. Today, we don’t wear them any more, and we also don’t look at their wearers as a means of coming closer to the divine. Today we can choose if and what clothes to wear and, apparently, the special message of clothing in general was lost forever. In the day and age of secularism, the modern clothes are only meant to protect us from the elements, to show our social status and, perhaps, to fulfil the purpose underlined in Michael’s video. Isn’t it?
Well, it most certainly isn’t!
In just a few days time, on Purim, the clothes we wear will probably be able to say about us a lot more than our current ones can. On Purim, instead of a skirt, a shirt, a suit or a tie, we will wear masks and costumes, apparently meant simply to amuse us or to conceal our identity. But the fact that we choose to wear masks and costumes on Purim, and that we do it al ha’nisim ve’al ha’purkan ve’al gvurot ve’al ha’niflaot, in the memory of the miracles and the wonders performed by G-d for us and our forefathers, as a remembrance of our history with Esther’s and Mordechai’s and Haman’s — that mere fact brings back all the symbols…
Because on Purim, wearing special clothing speaks about our identity more strongly perhaps than words ever could. On Purim, our clothes send a clear message: we are Jewish. As funny and strange as they may be, on Purim, our clothes are also worn “for glory and for splendour”, the same as the bigdei kehunah were in the Mishkan and the Temple in Jerusalem.
When you dress up for Purim this year, think about the fact that 5,775 years ago, G-d Himself decided to present our ancestors with clothing and, in doing so, He encouraged them to assume an identity and a name. It is probably not a random coincidence that the בגדי עור — the “garments of skin” mentioned in Bereshit have also been interpreted by the Midrash as an allusion to בגדי אור (this time spelled with an aleph instead of an ain), which translates as “garments of light”. A light that is mentioned by our parsha as well, immediately before Aaron’s clothing, as part of G-d’s commandment to light the Menorah eternally.
The light of the world’s beginnings, woven into Adam and Eve’s clothes… The light of the Menorah, reflected on the clothes of the Temple’s kohanim… A clear, powerful and shadowless light, reflected even today on the clothes we wear as a symbol of our identity. An identity we chose long ago and keep on choosing every day, for ourselves and for our children — in the midst of the Jewish nation.
Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on February 28, 2015
One hundred and eleven years ago, in 1904, the International Olympic Committee decided to make official a custom that was actually practiced in the world for many hundreds of years. In fact, the custom has been historically recorded since Ancient Greece as a symbol in those times of three distinct eras of humanity. I am referring here to the custom of recognizing the merit of champions of various types of competitions by presenting them with medals made of three very particular metals: gold, silver and copper. In Ancient Greece, these metals were alluding to what the Greeks believed to be the age of gods (gold), the age of eternal youth (silver) and the age of heroes (copper). Later on in history, gold and silver were still used as such, while copper became the main element in an alloy called “bronze” which the third place competitors received.
But the custom of using these three metals is not just about Ancient Greece. In the Torah, it actually carries a much wider and more interesting symbolism. In the 25th chapter of the Book of Shemot (Exodus), right at the beginning of Parashat Terumah, the Torah tells us the following:
וידבר ה’ אל־משה לאמר: דבר אל־בני ישראל ויקחו־לי תרומה מאת כל־איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את־תרומתי: וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם זהב וכסף ונחשת: – Hashem spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and let them take for Me an offering, from every person whose heart will inspire them to give you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold and silver and copper.
What is the significance of these metals and why does Hashem want them for the Sanctuary that He is commanding the Jews to make? Gold and silver, metals which are shiny and precious by themselves and have been used throughout the ages for jewellery and decorations are fairly understandable. Copper, on the other hand, is a more “industrial” metal, more suited for tools and weapons than for pretty things or as a symbol of royalty. There was even a time in the early history of mankind aptly labelled the Bronze Age, not because those people were using copper to mainly create beauty, but rather to create useful objects to help them in their daily tasks.
And this is really the first lesson of the use of gold, silver and copper for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle): serving G-d is not just about the looks. It is an useful exercise for us, humans, to be able to connect to our Creator in a way that brings together our potential for art and beauty with our potential for useful creativity. The world needs more than just a foil of gold or a foil of silver – in other words, it needs more than just a foil of pretty, shiny things to exist. Our energy and dedication need to focus also in becoming what G‑d wanted us to be: active partners in His creation. In Bereshit, at the end of Creation, the Torah tells us that Hashem rested מכל־מלאכתו אשר־ברא א-להים לעשות. Often mistranslated, this fragment really talks about the role Hashem wanted for us: the world was created laasot, to still be made, modified, improved, even today, by the hands and minds of G-d’s creations, us humans.
But this is not the only message of the three metals…
An absolutely beautiful explanation about them comes from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, much better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement. In quoting both the Midrash and the Zohar, the Lubavitcher Rebbe talks about the metals as “prizes” (if you will) for three different categories of Jews.
To make his case, he connects the terumah (offering) with three important moments the Jews experienced in the desert: Matan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai), the Egel haZahav (the Golden Calf) and the receiving of the second set of Tablets which also marks the first ever celebrated day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
At Sinai – as we know it – the Jews were elevated to such a spiritual height that even the lowest person was able to see and experience things nobody before or after in history was able to. Also, the Giving of the Torah marked the forgiving of all the sins and a completely clean slate for everyone present. However, almost immediately after, the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf and were in dire need for atonement. And this atonement actually came during the third event mentioned, when Moshe went up on the mountain to receive the second Tablets and establish Yom Kippur. In a sense, with Yom Kippur, the Jews all became baalei teshuvah – repenting Jews.
And this – the Rebbe explains – is the key to understanding the three metals. Gold is reserved for the baalei teshuvah, because they experienced the lows of life and spirituality and still had the strength to come back to the right path. They are the true champions, the ones who gave the most and who went through the hardest struggle. Silver is the symbol of the people whose life was easier from the start, as they were never exposed too much to the “temptations” of sin. Maybe it is the people who – because of their upbringing – were always “shielded” in a way from the world at large, growing up to know only the world of the yeshivot, kosher food, proper observance of Shabbat and so on. Their reward, silver, is a bit lower than gold, precisely because their accomplishment was easier, as fewer spiritual obstacles were placed in their path. And lastly, copper or bronze is reserved as a symbol for the process of repentance in general. Compared to the other two, copper has a much darker hue and can become tarnished much easier. However, with proper care and polishing, it can be made again to shine. And that is probably what we can all relate to the strongest: how to become beautiful and shiny again (spiritually speaking, of course) after our straying from the right path has darkened and tarnished our minds and souls.
Of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is not the only one connecting the three metals to the relationship between us and G-d. Even through a simple glance at the verses of the Torah we can make some connections… Gold, for example, is alluding to our greatest sin as a nation, the worshipping of the Golden Calf. Silver (in Hebrew: כסף) can be linked to the word כיסופים — “longings” or ”yearnings” of our hearts, making reference to the things people often want for themselves and which are not always good for them. And copper, apparently an “inferior” metal is a symbol of a person’s actions, often seen (especially by other religions and cultures) as inferior to what is sometimes called “pure faith”. Judaism takes a stand against such an approach: we are a nation of naaseh ve’nishma, of action before faith, which flips the whole idea of what’s “superior” and what’s “inferior” on its head.
But let us continue exploring the metals mentioned in our parasha, this time through other lenses…
When the Torah starts describing how these metals were actually used in the construction of the Mishkan, we discover an interesting thing: these metals are rarely alone. In fact, in many instances, they are used in combination with other non-metallic elements and more specifically with cloth and wood. A few simple examples: the Mizbeach (Altar), the Shulchan (the Table for the Showbreads) and the Aron (the Ark where the luchot, the tablets, were kept). In all these cases, the Torah describes that the object had to be made from wood and then covered with gold.
The Gemarah makes a very interesting point: the objects should be regarded halakhically as being made of wood, not gold, despite the fact that what people could actually see was the gold covering. And that idea carries a very important message: wood is alive and dynamic; metal is dead and static. Trees grow, they bear fruit, and they bend in the wind. Metal is unyielding, unchanging, without potential. In order to reach out to G-d, people must be more like the wood than like the gold. They need to be able to change internally, to grow, to learn how to bend their wishes to His, to keep their heart open to a message that might be contrary to the one they like or are used to. If people were spiritually cold and unyielding like the gold, any communication and any relation between each other and between people and G-d would be virtually impossible.
But let’s switch gears here for just a moment and talk not specifically about gold, silver and copper, but rather about metals in general, as another powerful message comes to us from the parasha, this time brought about not by what the Torah tells us, but rather by what it doesn’t tell us. Probably the most “popular” metal of all times, iron, is conspicuously missing from the enumeration of terumah. In fact, iron was never collected for the Tabernacle or the Temple, nor was it ever used in these edifices. In the Haftorah we read this morning, in the Book of Kings I, verse 7 tells us an interesting story:
When the Temple was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or chisel or any iron tool was heard in the Temple while it was being built.
At first glance, this verse is simply talking about the exact location of the stone cutting: at the quarry or at the site where the Temple (really the successor of the Mishkan) was built. But the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:6) talks about a very special animal that was created by G-d on the sixth day of Creation, right before the first Shabbat: the shamir worm. It was an animal whose sole purpose was to help in the building of the Temple. It was able to cut any stone it was placed on, and as such it replaced the need for any iron cutting tool.
The symbolism is phenomenal: iron is often used for weapons; it bears the mark of death and suffering. In the holiest place in the world, a Sanctuary in honour of Hashem – who is the Source of Good and Life – could not be built using a tool of death. Another solution, a living cutting tool had to be used to make the Temple happen, a solution which allowed for the stones to remain pure and untainted by death.
And finally, to close the circle, an idea from Rashi’s commentary on our parasha:
זהב וכסף ונחשת וגומר. כלם באו בנדבה איש איש מה שנדבו לבו, חוץ מן הכסף שבא בשוה, מחצית השקל לכל אחד. — All these materials were given voluntarily. Every individual came and gave what his heart prompted him to give, with the exception of silver, which was given in equal measure by everyone: a half a shekel each.
In order to build a house so that G-d can dwell in the midst of the people, the Jews first had to look deeply inside their own hearts. They had to make a choice and decide what they were willing to give from their most prized possessions (valuable metals), for the benefit of the community and for the glory of G-d.
And, at the same time, this exercise was also about equality. Precisely because people are different, because they have different means and different desires in their hearts, the Torah tells us that at least a part of that contribution had to be equally collected. Because it was important that the House made for G-d’s glory belongs to everyone in equal shares, a true בית תפלתי יקרא לכל העמים — ”house of prayer for all peoples.”
Going from the sacred to the profane, from the rigid to the malleable, from the freely given to the equally collected, from being a prize to being a reminder of our journey as a nation, from symbolizing sin to symbolozing teshuvah – the metals of Parashat Terumah offer us a glimpse into the fascinating world of Jewish ritual, as well as into the eternal and complex link between man and G-d.
Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered at the Rinat Yisrael minyan — February 21, 2015
If you ask a young child to draw a picture of a human being, the first thing they are likely to do is to make a circle for the head. Then, the child will make two dots for the eyes, a couple of lines for the nose and mouth, and two blobs for ears. Then they will sometimes add another line for the neck, a big circle for the body, two skinny arms with hands (sometimes with more than 5 fingers each! J), and two feet. And finally, they will show it to you and tell you proudly: “Look, that’s you!”