Parashat Terumah is the first of two parashiyot that describes the design of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites build and then carry with them throughout their time in the wilderness. It also describes the furnishings that resided within the Mishkan.
The Mishkan becomes a somewhat “permanent” temporary structure. Even after the Israelites enter the Promised Land, it will take several centuries before the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, to be built by King Solomon in Jerusalem, using the Mishkan as a model.
V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. “Build for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in your midst,” God instructs Israel through Moses. The Mishkan is the place where God’s Transcendent Presence becomes immanent. The people can simply look to the center of the camp, see the clouds of incense hovering over the Tent, and know that God was there to protect them, bless them, and bring them prosperity.
Everything pertaining to the Mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash, is deeply symbolic.
In the ancient world, the belief was that when people sin, impurity becomes attached to the Mishkan, and specifically to the altar. God’s Presence cannot remain in an impure Sanctuary.
That is where the priests come in. By conducting the rituals, they cleanse the Mishkan and the altar of impurity, allowing God’s Presence to return, bringing blessings to the people.
This is true for the Mishkan in the wilderness, and later for the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.
But something begins to change when the Rabbis come on the scene about two thousand years ago.
They take over from the biblical prophetic tradition, which tends to be skeptical of the automatic nature of the Temple rituals. Prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos recognize that while the priests conducted all of the Temple rituals with care and precision, people continues to behave with greed and callousness. There must be more to being a people of God than merely offering sacrifices.
The Rabbis inherit and replace this countercultural prophetic tradition. They interpret the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash symbolically, deriving universal moral lessons from the specific rituals that were once conducted only by the priests. Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, certain Jewish circles are starting to imagine a decentralized Judaism. They embrace the ancient Temple symbols, but add them new layers of meaning that make them accessible to any Jew, in any place.
Three of the important pieces of furniture in the Mishkan are described in Parashat Terumah – the altar, the ark, and the table. The altar, the mizbeaḥ, is where the sacrifices are performed. The Ark, the aron, houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments and serves as God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies. The table, the shulḥan, is where twelve loaves of bread are placed every week on Shabbat.
In describing each of these items, the Torah indicates that they are to have a zer of gold encircling the top. It is not clear what a zer is. Our English translation uses the word “molding.” It is some sort of decorative gold rim around the top of the altar, ark, and table. The Talmud (Yoma 72b) describes this zer as a crown, with symbolic meaning that extends way beyond mere aesthetics.
Rabbi Yoḥanan teaches: “There were three crowns on the sacred vessels in the Temple: The crown of the altar, and of the Ark, and of the table.” Each of these crowns is available to be claimed by someone who is deserving. For the crown of the altar, it is Aaron who is deserving. He takes it, becomes the High Priest, and passes on the crown of priesthood to his sons after him. The crown on the table is understood to represent kingship. David is the deserving one. He takes it for himself and passes it on to his children after him. What about the third crown – the crown of the ark? It still sits unclaimed, says Rabbi Yoḥanan. Kol ha-rotzeh likaḥ, yavo v’yikaḥ. Anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it. What is this crown of the ark? It is the crown of Torah. Anyone is allowed to come and wear the crown of Torah.
The midrash continues: You might think that this third, unclaimed, crown is inferior to the crowns of kingship and of priesthood. After all, nobody has taken it. This is not the case. It is in fact greater than both of them. The Book of Proverbs states, “Through me kings will reign” (Pr. 8:15). The strength of the crowns of priesthood and kingship is derived from the crown of Torah, which is greater than them all.
This midrash undermines the old system. Torah, that is to say, learning, has replaced the old dynastic systems of religious leadership. This is one of the great legacies that the Rabbis have left to us: a meritocracy based on learning that is accessible to anyone who chooses to embrace it, regardless of lineage, wealth, or background.
This idea is developed further. What does it mean to take the crown of Torah? The Talmud again derives its answer through a creative analysis of the Mishkan. We have already identified the ark as representing Torah. It contains, after all, the Ten Commandments. This ark, we read in the this morning’s Parashah, is constructed preciselt. It is kind of like one of those Russian nesting dolls, with three compartments. The middle compartment is a box made out of acacia wood. It is sandwiched between an inner compartment and an outer compartment, each of which are made out of gold.
In other words, the exterior part, that is visible to the outside world, is gold. But so is the inner part, the part that nobody sees. In the Talmud, Rava teaches kol talmid ḥakham she’ein tokho k’voro eino talmud ḥakham. “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar.”
Torah is not meant to be merely an intellectual pursuit. It is a living document, one that must transform the behavior of the one who studies it.