Terumah 2023: The Medium and the Message

The Tabernacle is a mysterious part of the Torah and Jewish history, but some of our scholars see in it a message as a medium between us and God. As bearers of Torah today, how can we connect with the Tabernacle as a medium?

Who hasn’t recently had a conversation about the media? Is the media too biased? What about social media? Is it destroying the world? It’s quite popular, especially within the media itself, to blame the media for all of the world’s ills. Media, as a word, has suffered from semantic drift. The word media is simply a plural of medium, while the word medium, at its core, is really just a word for that which is in between two things - which is to say, that space through which information is transmitted. 

Media do, in fact, affect the information that they transmit. The form they take shapes the information that passes through them, like a mold with molten metal poured inside - and then out comes the information in its new form. The original material remains, but in a new form that carries with it a new layer of meaning. 

It is not a coincidence that these particular forms - molten idols - are forbidden to the Jewish people. They were a stumbling block for us throughout history, as they distorted the message of God's oneness too dramatically. Yet, this week’s Torah portion is completely centered around building objects that are, themselves, media for God. 

The Tabernacle, a moveable sanctuary in which Moses and the priesthood could interact with God, is described in minute detail throughout the portion - its measurements, its required materials, and how it all fits together. It is quite easy to miss the forest for the trees as the portion lists each tiny piece of the Tabernacle and how it is to be constructed. Rather than throw our hands up at the mystery of why our ancestors included these arduously difficult to read verses, we have the gift of Torah. Torah is not just the words written in the scroll, but the ideas of those who came after, in their own forms of transmission, acting as molds themselves for the words that echo throughout eternity from the scroll.

Ibn Ezra, a prolific medieval rabbi, saw within the Tabernacle of our Torah portion a medium as well. In his commentary on the portion, he wrote, “the human is as a form of the upper world in miniature, as the human was the final point of God’s creation of the earth; and the Tabernacle is the medium form of the world, acting as an intermediary between the miniature form, that is the human, and the greatest form, that is the world itself, and each of the three have 18 corresponding features.”

Our tradition sees within the Tabernacle not just a place where the ancients  sacrificed animals, and where Moses went to speak face to face with God, but a message in its form. The Tabernacle, according to Ibn Ezra, corresponds to the human body, as well as the foundational forms of the universe, echoing a message of 18 parts through each of the media - from the highest point of the Divine, through the Tabernacle, to us. 

Setting aside the 18 specifics, what is it that we call this stream of Divine information which moves from the vast reaches of the Universe through our ancestors to us? We call it Torah. Moses, through his engagement with the Tabernacle, revealed Torah, and we, through our engagement with our senses, with the world, and the words of our ancestors, reveal Torah. Allow me a brief moment of mysticism. As many of you may know, the number 18 is often referred to as “chai,” as the Hebrew alphabet has both linguistic and numeric values, and the numeric value of the word “chai” is 18. Chai means life - Jews throughout the world will do things, such as donate money, in multiples of 18 as a way of charging their donations with extra blessing; for using their donations or gifts as a medium for something more than money; to make the act Jewish. 

And, famously, our Torah is referred to as “Eitz Chayyim” The Tree of Life, or Lives if you translate it literally. The tree of 18, or, 18s: plural. Torah is our medium for transmitting chai, that is, life; passed down to our ancestors through the Tabernacle, which itself transmitted life, chai. Today we shape it, we create it, and we place it in the world through speaking, through writing, and through action. In doing so, we, ourselves, build a Tabernacle, creating a place for God to dwell amongst us. When we align ourselves to occupy the proper role in relation to the universe and our tradition, we become bearers, channels of Torah, of Jewish life. We become the medium, but only through proper alignment.

Proper alignment in Judaism is called tzedek which is best translated in English as working towards clarity of what is most right in any situation and having the chutzpah to stand up for that clear rectitude without fear of the outcome. Our rabbis taught what an ish tzedek, a righteous person, a tzadik, is also called “life” Chaiim. May each of you find your way into embodying, becoming the medium for your own branch of Eitz Chayim, the tree of life, the Torah. May our people become stronger for it, our world become richer, and may it lead us all to paths of peace.