Parashat Teruma / A Multifaceted Commodity

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Moses Receiving the Tablets,' by Gebhard Fugel (c. 1900)
Yakov Z. Meyer

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Teruma (Exodus 25:1-27:19), begins with “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take my offering’” (Exodus 25:1-2).

Regarding this opening, the midrash comments, “It is written, ‘that they take for me an offering.’ That verse is referred to in the following verse: ‘For I give you good doctrine [or, a good commercial commodity]; forsake ye not my teaching’ [Proverbs 4:2]. Do not forsake the commodity I have given you.

“When a person buys gold, the purchase does not include silver.

Similarly, if silver is bought, gold is not part of the purchase. However, the commodity I have given you includes silver – as it is written, ‘The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in a crucible on the earth’ [Psalms 12:7] – as well as gold, as it is written, ‘More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold’ [Psalms 19:11].

“When a person buys fields, the purchase does not include vineyards. Similarly, if vineyards are bought, fields are not included in the purchase. However, the commodity I have given you includes both fields and vineyards, as it is written, ‘Thy shoots [or, irrigated fields] are a park of pomegranates’ [Song of Songs 4:13]. Sometimes a person makes a purchase but no one knows about the commodity that was bought; they only learn of the value of it from the fee the broker received in this sale.

“Similarly, no one knows the value of the Torah; only from the fee that the broker received in the sale can one know its value, as it is written, ‘Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while he [i.e., God] talked with him’ [Exod. 34:29]. In some cases, when a purchase is made, the commodity is bought together with the person who sold it. God told Israel, ‘I have sold you my Torah and it is as if I were sold together with it, as it is written, ‘that they take for me an offering’” (Shemot Rabbah 33:1).

In the above commentary on “For I give you good doctrine,” where the word used for “doctrine” – lekah – is interpreted as “commercial commodity,” the Torah is presented as an article that can be bought and sold. Because it is a high-quality commodity, it must not be forsaken. In order to find out what the nature of this product is, however, one must open it and read it. Only then can we discover the nature of the Torah.

In the first two parts of the midrash above, the difference between an ordinary purchase and the Torah is depicted. The former is a specific item: gold, not silver, or silver, not gold; vineyards, not fields, or fields, not vineyards. An object that never changes. The Torah, however, is a literary creation and one that contains reflexive descriptions of its very nature. These descriptions show that it can essentially be two commodities in one.

The Torah – in the broad sense, that is, the entire Hebrew Bible – contains, for example, a verse that describes itself as pure silver, while another verse describes it as lovelier than gold. There is also a verse that describes the Torah as a combination of fields and vineyards (or, more specifically, as irrigated fields and orchards). According to this chain of verses, the Torah is a multifaceted object, a polyphonic entity, whose various properties render it a commodity that is superior to any other.

The midrash notes the difference between the Torah and all other kinds of purchases, and then, in order to describe the Torah more effectively, once more places it under the general category of commercial commodities. However, the midrash continues to refer to the Torah as an entity that cannot be described; only its impact on the “broker” who was part of the sales transaction – that is, Moses – can be described.

Light emanates from Moses’ face as he descends from Mount Sinai together with the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, although he himself is unaware of the light. That light is the best indicator of the Torah’s nature.

Finally, the midrash returns to the one who sold the Torah, and notes that the it is one of those goods that is sold together with the seller – in other words, the Torah cannot be purchased by itself but must be purchased together with its owner.

The three sections of this midrash illustrate three different ways of looking at the Torah, and describe it in different, external terms: the Torah as a multifaceted object, as an object whose value can be known only from the fee received by the broker, and as a product that cannot be divorced from its owner, who must be purchased with it.

The verse “For I give you good doctrine,” where the word for “doctrine” is also understood to mean “commercial commodity,” marks the Torah as an object. In the wake of this verse, the midrash seeks to understand just what kind of commodity the Torah is. Although it might be a valuable commodity, it cannot be defined as falling into the category of ordinary goods. It can only be defined by various reflexive and multi-channeled definitions, by its impact on the broker involved in its purchase, and by the fact that it cannot be bought without its owner.

But what connection is there between the Torah and the donation or offering appearing in the opening of this week’s reading? Why does the opening lead the midrash to discuss the nature of the Torah? The answer can be found in the way the midrash’s finale relates to the opening verses of this week’s portion: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering.” This is God’s commandment, and the midrash deduces from the phrasing of these two initial verses in the reading that the Torah cannot be purchased separate from its owner.

The midrash bases itself on the similarity between the word “lekach” from Proverbs, “For I give you good doctrine [or a good commercial commodity]” – where the Torah is presented as a product – and the word v’yikhu (“that they take,” or “that they should take”) in the verse “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering” in the opening of this week’s portion (both words are from the same verbal root, lamed-kof-het: to take). Although, according to a literal reading of the latter verse, God commands the Children of Israel to take an offering (or to give a donation), the word li (“for me”) comes between the act of taking an offering, and the object of that act of taking.

Focusing on this word, the midrash presents an interesting argument: It is written, “that they take for me.” But what should they take? The doctrine or the commercial commodity. According to the verse from Proverbs, the object of the verb “take” is the Torah. God praises his merchandise just as any human merchant would, “For I give you good doctrine.” The midrash then disconnects the words “v’yikhu li” (“that they take for me”) from their context and turns them from an indirect commandment into a confession being made by God.

In accordance with the customary way the sages read an indirect object as a direct one, the midrash reads “v’yikhu li” (“that they take for me”) as “v’yikchu oti” (“that they take me”). The midrash turns the indirect commandment into a divine confession, where, in this interpretation, God is confessing his weakness: “God told Israel, ‘I have sold you my Torah and it is as if I were sold together with it.’”