God and Home Improvement

T'rumah, Exodus 25:1−27:19

D'Var Torah By: Laura Novak Winer

Focal Point

  • And let them make Me a sanctuary [mikdash] that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle [Mishkan] and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:8–9)
  • You shall make a lampstand [m’norah] of pure gold. . . . On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand. (Exodus 25:31–33)

D'var Torah

I love watching home improvement shows. They are all somewhat similar in format: the homeowner is inundated with staff from the show including a designer, a carpenter or two, and other unseen worker-bees who all make sure to get a room redecorated in twenty-four hours or less with very little money.

A regular feature of these shows is the requisite first meeting between the designer and the carpenter. The designer says, “I want you to build me a table (or bookcase, or imaginative piece of cabinetry). It should be this long and that wide. Please add molding at the top, and make sure the legs are rounded.” The designer usually hands the carpenter a sketch of the piece, which includes measurements and design details. Inevitably, the carpenter adds his or her own design details while working on the piece. The finished product has been inspired by not only the designer’s vision, but also the carpenter’s artistry and skill. Upon seeing the finished product, the designer usually exclaims, “Wow, this is great. I never thought of doing it that way!”

As we read Parashat T’rumah, we wonder, how is it that the Israelites are able to follow, in exact detail, the instructions that God has given them for building the Mishkan, “the Tabernacle.” Though commanded to create the Mishkan “exactly as I show you” (Exodus 25:9), the instructions are not so clear. Upon reading the verses detailing the construction of the ark (aron), the table (shulchan), the lampstand (m’norah), and the tent of the Tabernacle, one is confused as to where certain details should be and how they should relate to each other. Presumably the instructions for building the Mishkan were orally transmitted to Moses and to the Israelites. But the instructions did not come with drawings as well—at least we assume they didn’t. How were the Israelites supposed to know exactly what these ritual objects should look like?

I imagine that as the Israelites progressed with the building work there were conversations about what God meant by a certain detail of the instructions. What does God mean by, “On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals . . .”? What do cups shaped like almond-blossoms really look like? How big should the cups be? Where should the petals be? Obviously God cares about the appearance of the lampstand; otherwise God would not provide such detailed instructions. How then are the Israelites to get it right? And what will happen if they don’t?

If we think back to the designer and the carpenter on the home improvement show, we remember that the work of creating a piece of cabinetry needs to happen in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. The designer creates the vision for the piece; he or she is the source of inspiration. The carpenter then takes that vision, and using both skill and artistry, transforms that vision into an object that is real, functional, and beautiful.

So it is with God and the Israelites—and with us. Parashat T’rumah outlines for us the vision that God has of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in which God will dwell. Yet it is the skill and artistry of the Israelites that make the vision become real. It is their interpretation of God’s instructions that allows the Israelites to create a Tabernacle that is both beautiful and functional—a Mishkan that is portable and can be carried with them in the desert, yet is worthy of God’s indwelling presence. In creating the Mishkan, the newly freed Israelites have what may be their first experience of tikkun olam b’malchut Shaddai, “repair of the world under God’s sovereignty.”

As Jews, our relationship with God is one of partnership. God put us on this earth to help perfect it, to help complete the work of Creation. God, our interior designer, gives us instructions; God shares a vision with us. That vision is the Torah; those instructions are the mitzvot by which we guide our lives. We are the carpenters. God knows that as carpenters, we are going to infuse those instructions with our own sense of beauty, our own design details.

Each day, we should consider ourselves to be God’s team of carpenters, working to complete the creation of our world. While we may not be building arks, lampstands, or tables, we are building a world infused with justice and peace, equality, and opportunity for all. And our vision is like that of the carpenter on the home improvement show: It is that God will say to us, “Wow, this is great. I never thought of doing it that way!”

By the Way

  • Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11, 30:14)
  • Solomon sent this message to Hiram: “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of Adonai his God because of the enemies that encompassed him, until Adonai had placed them under the soles of his feet. But now Adonai my God has given me respite all around; there is no adversary and no mischance. And so I propose to build a house for the name of Adonai my God, as Adonai promised my father David, saying, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for My name.’” (I Kings 5:16–19)

Your Guide

  1. In Deuteronomy, in Parashat Nitzavim, we are told that the mitzvot are within our reach for us to observe and uphold. They are not too difficult or too confusing. They are accessible, so much so that they are already embodied within each of us to tell and to do. Thus, the instructions for building the Mishkan must not have been too confusing for the Israelites to follow. And the mitzvot are ours to own and observe as well. How does this message help us understand our role as God’s partners? What motivation does this message give us to continue with the work of tikkun olam?

  2. The haftarah for Parashat T’rumah describes the process by which King Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem. Earlier in I Kings 5 we are told that although he wants to, Solomon’s father, King David cannot build the Temple, because he is too busy engaging in war with his enemies. How does King David’s engagement in war prevent him from participating in this act of building? Complete this comparison: If building leads to tikkun olam, then war leads to ______?

  3. Can you think of a time in which you were the carpenter bringing God’s design to life? Has God ever responded saying, “Wow, this is great. I never thought of doing it that way!”?

Reference Materials

T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
Haftarah, I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 717-718; Revised Edition, pp. 559-560