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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

Reality and the Mishkan

The following Dvar Torah on Parshat Terumah was given by Jason Glass on 28 February 2020.

For the sake of full transparency, this year’s Parashat Terumah marks somewhat of an emotionally perplexing and confronting period. Terumah 2020 (or 5780 depending on your calendar of choice) denotes the 10-year anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. It’s also my dad’s first yahrzeit. It’s also my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. So, yeah. Mixed bag.

You will all be delighted to know then, that this Parashah holds some of the answers to the biggest spiritual, existential and ethical questions that Judaism has to offer, all concisely delivered in the most engaging format yet discovered by humans: listing.

In last week’s parshah Mishpatim, we outlined 53 of God’s do’s and don’ts in the form of imperative and prohibitive laws, the subject matter of which may be of great interest to some of you legal aficionados out there, or perhaps you are just a person that enjoys a bit of ethical contortionism to navigate through the various loopholes of a several-thousand-yearold system of rules dictated by this magic scroll-book and affirmed by many generations of old, white bearded men. Not my idea of Sunday afternoon recreation, but if it is for you, the more power to you.

This week’s parashah, however, has a very different target demographic. Or should I say, demographics. As I see it, the two target groups are carpenters and religo-historians, two groups who, if you were to draw up a Venn diagram, would admittedly have a very narrow intersection.

To summarise this parshah in a few words, it is 7 juicy portions of God providing Moses with many, many instructions pertaining to the construction of the Mishkan. The Mishkan – also known as tabernacle – was the portable sanctuary used by the Bnei Yisrael throughout the desert post-Egyptian exodus. Think of it as a precursor to the First temple King Soloman would build some years later. It just so happens that this week’s haftarah observes the construction of said temple, so the Rabbis of days gone by clearly thought this was a useful comparison too.

As I alluded to before, these construction instructions take the form of rather long-winded lists. The result of such a genre-bending literary technique sounds a little something like:

3 … gold, silver, and copper;

4 blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair;

5 ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood;

The entire parshah is essentially comprised of passages like this one. And the only reason I chose that excerpt specifically, is because it answered my longest outstanding question about Judaism that no, the Mishkan was not vegan. Like my room decorations, it was covered in goat hair and ram skins.

But truthfully, unless you are a historian at the Israel museum or a prop designer for a Raiders of the Lost Ark remake, this Parasha is as dry is the sand the Israelites had to walk through. After scouring back and forth through the 7 verses, there were really only two things that stood out to me.

The first – you may have noticed in my excerpt – was mention of the ‘tachash.’ Upon first read, I was confused, scared and angry. How dare this clearly Hebraic word contaminate my hopefully-not politically insidious English translation! However, once I was able to put aside my abhorrence, I began my investigations as to the appropriate English translations. And as it turns out, there isn’t one. To this day, we don’t really know what the Tachash is or was. It appears to be some sort of animal, but other than that, its speculations range from badger to seal to a 50-foot-long rainbow-unicorn. And I’m very happy to say that I didn’t make that up, and it is 100% a real speculation. I have the citation if anyone is interested to get it from me after.

My other observation, though not as profound as that of the multi-coloured unicorn, was the abundant use of ‘cubits’ throughout. A cubit – or ה ָּ֤ מַ א in Hebrew – is a unit of measurement, commonly used throughout the bible. In modern English dictionaries, a cubit is understood to be based the length from your elbow, to the tip of your middle finger. Elbow, to middle finger.

I want to let that sit in the air for just a moment, to let it sink in just how utterly bizarre that statement is. This unit of measurement is defined as the length from your elbow to your middle finger. It is an entire system of measurement that entirely neglects the variability of anatomy. My cubit is different from your cubit is different from your cubit. Utterly. Bizarre. I’ll admit, there is an element of practicality to it. If cubits were a recognised SI unit of measurement and ubiquitous in all countries (except America for some reason), right now, there would be 7 billion people with slightly less than 14 billion conveniently located tape measures at all times.

From an architectural perspective however, I struggle to think of a more poorly designed system. Unless the asymmetrical genius of Antoni Gaudi was a direct result of a poorly defined unit of measurement, it seems that such uncertainty would result in a Mishkan that would not meet the rigorous engineering and structural safety standards the Israelites were infamous for.

Honestly though, I love that. I’m the type of person that is largely uninterested by the practicalities of reality, and more concerned by its underlying philosophies – the more abstract and removed from logistics, the better.

And whilst I acknowledge just how obviously problematic that is, I hope you’ll join me momentarily into a little bit of opt in ignorance for the sake of some good ol’ fashioned Jewish symbolism.

Wouldn’t it be just a little bit nice, if we sometimes didn’t care how long a metre was? Like, just sometimes? Or maybe if we didn’t care about the difference between a minute and an hour? Or what if a dollar meant the same thing in Australia and America? Or rather, if their respective values were both equally meaningless?

Because really, when we boil it down to basics, units of measurement are simply our way of describing the physical world around us; a tool to assess the material. And I’m not referring to the superficiality often associated with materialism, but rather the capital M ‘Material’; the things we with which we can interact. Our ability to discern the world around us with overwhelming precision is an immensely human characteristic, and one that has enriched society in more ways than I can count.

But also…. Wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes we could forget about it all?

Wouldn’t it be nice if just sometimes, when you’re asked, “how long left of our lunch break is there,” you replied, “no idea, let’s just enjoy it?”

Wouldn’t it be nice just sometimes, to go for a walk without being overly concerned where you finish up?

Wouldn’t it be nice just sometimes to allow ourselves to get lost in a moment or experience outside our corporeal existence?

Wouldn’t it be nice just sometimes, if we could just allow ourselves to exist?

Jason is a medical student and member of the Ayelet HaShachar community.

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