Parashat Terumah: Details and Dolphin Skins

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, February 4, 2011]

Tonight we're going to talk about blueprints and inventories and gifts and unicorns. Because this week we read Parashat Terumah, where all these things figure. In this portion, God announces the plans for the mishkan, the holy tent where the tablets of the law will be kept, and where the people will gather, and where God will speak to Moshe. God puts out a call for gifts, terumot, to be given by the people from the generosity of their hearts. Why all the big plans, you might ask? God says this:

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם

Make me a mikdash, a holy place, and I will dwell among them.

This is an important theological moment. God does not say "I will dwell in it," but "I will dwell among them." But if God is everywhere, as we always say and teach these days, what does it mean for God to say, "I will dwell among them?" Doesn't God always dwell among us? 

I asked this question of our students at Dor Hadash last Sunday, and 10-year old Chaia piped up, saying, "God is always among us, but the mishkan helps us notice."

Reb Chaia's answer reflects one of our deepest human desires: to be able to notice God. Or to be able to connect with something bigger, even if "God" is not the name we use for that sensation. So in the wilderness, we had a mishkan as a reminder, a visual mnemonic. A finger pointing toward God. And having a mishkan necessarily involves building a mishkan.

I think in our generation, here in New Age Sonoma County, we like to skip over the building part. We like the feeling of mindfulness; we joyfully seek awareness of God or of a great cosmic oneness. But we like it direct, without "man-made" items in the middle. We go to the woods or to the ocean. We lose ourselves in nature. Or we pour ourselves into meditation. We use these methods to sail into the vastness of Eyn Sof - of the divine infinite.

But what's exciting about this Torah portion and its instructions for building the mishkan, is that the mindfulness of God's presence seems to come not through contemplating vastness but through attention to minute detail. Because the instructions in Terumah are hugely detailed. For fussy queens like me - and a Virgo no less - who live so much of our lives fixated on, and sometimes trapped in, the details, this parashah comes as a vindication. God is not just in the big picture but, hooray, in the small picture too.

God's instructions for the building the mishkan are thorough and intricate. They set out materials, dimensions and who should be on the design team. They include blueprints for the ark that will hold the commandments and the table for sacrifices and the poles for lugging and the rings that hold the poles and the curtains and the lamps and the curious gold cherubim that will adorn the mishkan and the enclosure that will surround it.

Of course our people have always found holiness in detail. The Talmud and our other rabbinic writings rejoice in the minutia of the law. Our traditions require a detailed awareness of our day-to-day lives in order to suffuse them with holiness. What we wear. How we eat. What foods mix. What blessings we articulate depending on what act we're about to engage in or what phenomenon we just observed. We all agree that there is something beautiful about seeing a rainbow and saying, "Oh wow." But there's a different beauty and holy connection in seeing a rainbow and knowing specific Jewish words to bless it: baruch Atah Adonai, zocher habrit. 

But alas for me, the details alone are not enough. The materials are not enough. The ingredients are not enough. They must be married to an intention, a kavanah, a vision, a purpose. There's a story that Gertrude Stein tells in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, about their servant, Helene. Heleneone day was feeling put out at the behavior of the painter Henri Matisse who, when asked to stay for a meal, first asked what was being served -- a rudeness which Helene forgave in foreigners but would not abide in a Frenchman. So when she was told that Matisse was staying for dinner, she said, "In that case I will not make an omelet but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand."

Butter and eggs can but don't necessarily have to make an omelette. Wood and metal and cloth can but don't necessarily have to make a mishkan. It depends not only on materials but on intent. The omelette requires respect. The mishkan requires that too. And an awareness of a holy purpose.

So it seems we need to hold both the pieces and the whole. Every great painting requires both vision and the painstaking mixing of pigment. Every great poem entails both inspiration and agonizing decisions about meter and rhyme. Vision and detail. Both are needed to move us.

Okay, so God being in the details as much as God is in the vastness. But I also promised unicorns, I believe. For that we turn back to the details of the mishkan, beginning with the list of materials - the gifts God will accept: Gold. Silver. Copper. Three specific colors of yarn. Linen. Goat's hair. Ram's skins. Dolphin skins. Acacia wood. Oil. Spices.

Okay, wait. Let's back it up. Dolphin skins? Did I just say "dolphin skins?" Yes. It's right there in the list and it stops me in my tracks every time I read it. What dolphin skins? What are the Children of Israel doing in the desert with dolphin skins? In Hebrew these are 'orot t'chashim. Skins of the tachash. What is a tachash? It's not what it sounds like. Truthfully, no one knows what it was. The Medieval commentator Rashi said it was a great multi-colored beast. In Talmud it's suggested that it was a beast with one horn. Midrash suggests that the tachash only came into being for the purpose of lending its skin to the construction of the mishkan and after that it ceased to exist. The more modern Anchor Bible notices a similar word in Arabic that means "dolphin," so that's what they chose and that, right or wrong, seems to have stuck in many subsequent translations, including many Jewish ones.

So maybe it's a dolphin. Maybe a giraffe. Or an okapi. Or with the single horn, a rhino. Or we might as well say a unicorn, seeing as it was an animal that even in antiquity was so exotic as to be downright mythological. No matter what it was, it begs the question: how did this group of escaped slaves come to be wandering the desert with dolphin skins? Or giraffe skins. Or unicorn skins. Every year at Pesach we tell the story of our poverty and oppression in Egypt and our haste in departing. How does that story square with this new detail? "Honey, there's no time to let the bread rise. We've got to just bake it flat. Oh, in the meantime, don't forget to pack the dolphin skins! And precious metals. Oh and why not a few cubits of acacia wood, just in case we want to build."

Or maybe while crossing the Red Sea on dry land. looking from side to side into the wall of water, well, who could resist plucking out a dolphin or two?

This is narishkayt.

Silliness. The Israelites having all this stuff with them makes no sense. Modern critics would say that this passage was added to Torah later, inserted here to foreshadow the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. And that might be so, but resolving it that way is not a luxury we Jews have. Our Torah process involves wrestling with the text we've inherited and finding meaning in it.

So I thought about these poor Children of Israel, nebech, carrying with them not only obviously precious items, but also odd and awkward items, which, at the time they were packed were of no particular use. Hidden gifts shlepped through the wilderness. Or not quite gifts, but gifts in potentia. Bric-a-brac, awaiting the chance to become holy regalia.

We all have gifts. We give so many of them from the generosity of our hearts to make this a holier world. Some here have talents of music or art or words. Some have skills in nurturing or mediating or doctoring. Some have special qualities of patience or kindness or humor. These are our terumot - our contributions. Take a moment right now and think about one of your gifts that you give generously.

These gifts are your gold and silver. Not your precious metal but your precious mettle. But the mishkan wasn't just made with gold and silver. There's also the acacia wood and the unicorn skins that have been lugged around, awaiting an opportunity to be useful. So let me give you a harder task. Close your eyes and think of the gift you have to offer that you haven't offered yet. The one no one knows you carry. The one you might not even have thought of yet as a gift. Close your eyes and identify your hidden gift. The one that's just been waiting.

Notice what that is. And ask yourself when you will offer it. When you will use it to build a mishkan, to make this world holier. They say that as the mishkan was constructed, its twin was constructed in the celestial realm and I pray that is still so.

So kechu terumah kol n'div libo -- give your gifts, give them generously, from your heart, your obvious gifts, and the gifts you haven't yet tried out. With them you can move not only earth but heaven too. With them you can build a mishkan, so we can notice -- so we can invite -- God to dwell among us.

(Acacia - Perfect for Mishkan Building)