Parashat Teruma / The Primordial Torah

The construction of the Tabernacle is performative in nature; it is a ritual imitating the historical-literary event of the creation of the world.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The sages likened the construction of the portable Tabernacle in the desert to God’s creation of the universe. With an interpretation crafted with intricate artistic precision, they matched each detail in one narrative with a corresponding detail in the other. The curtains of the sky compared to the goat-skin curtains in the Tabernacle, the dividing between heaven and earth with the veil that divided the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary, and so on and so forth, detail after detail.

The construction of the Tabernacle is performative in nature; it is a ritual imitating the historical-literary event of the creation of the world. While the Tabernacle’s builders imitate God, its construction is an imitation of the reality that God creates when he brings the universe into being. The text of the play that is contained in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Teruma (Exodus 25:1-27:19), is constructed – or, at least, reconstructed by the sages – as a replication of the creation of the universe. This is a highly fecund analogy that is provided with many additional variations, such as in the following midrash: “Just as light was the first to be created when God brings the world into being, as it is written, ‘And God said: “Let there be light”’ [Gen. 1:3], similarly, in connection with the Tabernacle, the actions associated with the Torah – which is called light, as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light’ [Proverbs 6:23] – precede the fashioning of all the Tabernacle’s other tools and furnishings” (Shemot Rabbah 34:2).

With the creation, the first thing that God creates is light and the midrash cites the verse in which the Torah is likened to light. In the Tabernacle, the Torah is placed in the Ark of the Covenant and God commands Moses to build the Ark before any of the Tabernacle’s other tools and furnishings. Just as the creation of light is the first stage in the world’s creation, similarly the construction of the Ark of the Covenant is the first stage in the construction of the Tabernacle.

However, the parallel is not a perfect one. Light is a distinct element that exists in its right; it does not contain anything nor does it represent anything. In contrast, the Ark is neither independent material nor an independent quality; instead, it is a vessel that contains the Torah. Since the Torah precedes the Ark’s construction, it can be deduced that its existence precedes the Tabernacle’s construction.

This slight deviation is based on a straightforward literal reading of the Torah text. Since God gives Moses on Mount Sinai the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments are engraved, it is obvious that the tablets already existed before the Tabernacle’s construction. The implications of this detail take on a radical nature in the sage’s analogical system. Not only did the Torah exist before the Tabernacle; it also existed before the creation.

In the midrashic work Bereisheet Rabbah there is a midrash on the Torah’s primordial nature. It refers to a passage in the Book of Proverbs according to which Wisdom, as an abstract entity, existed in God’s presence even before Creation, as Wisdom attests: “The Lord made me as the beginning of his way, the first of his works of old” [Prov. 8:22]. Among Creation’s scaffolds, Wisdom engages in playful conversations with God. In the sages’ eyes, Wisdom as an abstract entity becomes the Torah - that is, the textual entity that starts with “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” God possessed the Torah prior to the world’s creation.

The midrash in Bereisheet Rabbah depicts the relationship between God and the Torah: “In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own ‎skills, ‎but with those of an architect. Moreover, the architect does not build it out of ‎his head, ‎but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and ‎the wicket doors. ‎Thus God ‎consulted the Torah and created the world, while the ‎Torah declares, ‘In the beginning ‎God ‎created’ (Genesis 1:1), ‘beginning’ referring to ‎the Torah, as in the verse, ‘The Lord made ‎me ‎as the beginning of His way’ (Prov. ‎‎8:22)" (Bereisheet Rabbah 1:10, the Freedman-Simon translation)‎.

In the sages’ eyes, the Torah’s first chapters, which describe creation in detail, become the blueprint that God uses to create the universe. God reads the Torah and creates the world in accordance with its instructions. Thus, the sages transform the Torah from an authoritative document of what exists to instructions as to how to create what now exists.

The above midrash converts the Torah into a text found outside what exists. It is as if the Torah has no physical substance whatsoever between the borders of heaven and earth. It is an object that is in God’s possession and which belongs to him. However, the Torah is not just the first chapters of Genesis. Throughout Genesis and in the first half of Exodus, this ethos could have existed. The Torah stands outside the narrative and, if it does not describe it, it prophesies it. Do we as readers know that Abraham’s slave, Eliezer, meets Rebecca at the well because the encounter is depicted in the Torah, or does he perhaps meet her because this fact was written from time immemorial in the Torah? The reply provided by the above midrash - if we slightly extend its borders - is unequivocal. We are not the Torah’s ideal readers; God is. He reads the Torah and creates the world, using it as a blueprint.

Yet today we see the Torah as a text, as a part of our reality. When did the script enter the plot? The upheaval in the Torah’s physical place took place a few weeks ago, midway through the Book of Exodus. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, receiving the scopic, primordial, uncreated Torah into his created hands. The text outside Creation is converted into a created object. Thus, the Torah becomes a book, an object with a twofold role. Because of its metaphysical contents, it can describe Creation from the outside, while it also constitutes a substantive physical entity. In the Genesis Rabbah midrash, the Torah becomes the operating instructions for the world’s creation. However, Creation’s reenactment as expressed in the Tabernacle’s construction does not require highly imaginative interpretations. Moses provides the artisans in charge of the Tabernacle’s construction with the instructions that appear in the Torah so that they will carry them out; the commandments concerning the Tabernacle’s construction that appear in this week’s and next week’s Torah portions, Teruma and Titzaveh, are performed to the letter in the final two portions, Vayak’hel and Pekudei. Here one finds the difference between the first creation – namely, the world’s creation – and Creation’s representation as reenacted in the Tabernacle’s construction.

In the latter case, the Torah is transformed from a metaphysical entity into a created light – into a book. From this moment on, there is a need to find a physical place for the Torah. That is why God commands Moses to construct the Ark of the Covenant, whose function is to provide a dwelling place for the play.

“God says to Israel: ‘I have sold you my Torah and it is as if I were sold together with it, as it is written, “[Speak unto the children of Israel,] that they take for me an offering” [Exod. 25:2).] One can think of a parable here: A king has an only daughter. Another king comes to the kingdom, marries the king’s daughter, and asks to be allowed to go home to his kingdom with his bride. The bride’s father says to his new son-in-law: ‘I have given you the hand of my only daughter in marriage. I cannot bear to be separated from her nor can I order you not to take her with you because she is now your wife. Therefore, I ask you to do me this one favor: Wherever you live, please construct for me a small room so that I can live together with the two of you because I must be where my daughter is.’ Similarly, God says to Israel: ‘I have given you the Torah. I cannot bear to be separated from it nor can I order you not to take it with you. Therefore, wherever you live, I ask you to construct for me a home so that I can live there, as it is written, ‘And let them make me a sanctuary’ [Exod. 25:8)] (Exodus Rabbah:33).

God concedes the Torah that he has read up until now. He asks to live in close proximity to the newlyweds - that is, the Torah and Israel - because he cannot bear to be separated from the Torah. Israel must take over from God, must read the Torah in his stead and must now create in his stead; however, God lives in close proximity to the Children of Israel and reminds them who the Torah’s previous reader was. Perhaps he mainly reminds them of the consequences of that reading: the creation of the universe. Perhaps he is indicating to the Torah’s new readers how much the power of their reading can achieve.

Illustration from the 1728 “Figures de la Bible,” illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733).