The commandment to construct the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vessels is not the first encounter we have with the world of sacrificial service of God. Already at the close of Parashat Yitro the Torah states: “And God said to Moshe: ‘Thus shall you say to Bnei Yisra’el, “You have seen that I spoke to you from the heavens. Do not make (a representation) of Me; do not make silver or gold gods for yourselves. Make an earthen altar for Me whereupon you may offer your burnt sacrifices, your peace sacrifices, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. When you build a stone altar for Me, do not build it out of hewn stone; your sword will have been lifted against it and thus you will have profaned it. Do not ascend My altar by means of steps, so that your nakedness not be revealed on it.” (Shemot 20:19-23)
These verses raise the following questions:
▪ While Parashat Terumah discusses an altar as part of the Mishkan’s structure, in Parashat Yitro we read of an altar that is not a component of an established place of prayer. This altar, it seems, is not bound by any specific place or religious framework, and may be erected anywhere.
▪ Parashat Yitrodiscusses an altar that is to be constructed from earth or stones – as long as the stones have not been hewn by the sword. Parashat Terumah, however, describes an altar of wood and copper.
▪ Parashat Yitromakes no mention of who is to serve at this altar – leading us to conclude that anyone may utilize this altar for his own personal sacrifices. Parashat Terumah discusses the entire Mishkan, which is the sole territory of the kohanim (priests).
▪ Parashat Yitroomits all mention of gold and silver, focusing on an altar of earth or stone – possibly implying that an altar constructed of precious metals is undesirable. The Mishkan, however, is replete with items of gold and silver.
In order to answer these issues we must understand the essential difference between these parashiyot. The yearning to serve God can burst forth from the individual who has a strong desire to come in contact with his Creator – to offer thanks or praise, or to make a request. We witness this in the offerings offered by Cain and Abel, Noah on exiting the ark, and our forefathers when they offered thanks to God at the various junctions of their lives.
This service of God stems from the person himself, it is unrestricted by place or time. As this is the personal spiritual experience of the individual Jew, it is not subject to the limitations requiring the involvement of the kohanim and levi’im (Levites). The value of this service can be found in its sincere, authentic origins – for it results from the deep convictions and lofty desires of the individual who approaches God of his own will and not as a result of an obligation to pray or serve God.
However, this avenue of service of God holds within it a great danger – for this may lead to idolatry. If one believes that he may serve God by simply offering “gifts” in order to please God, he may understand that the more lavish the gift the more effectual it will be. Thus, he will seek to beautify his altar – adorning it with gold and silver, and of course, he will seek to offer only the most costly sacrifices. This will ultimately distort his entire service of God, placing him, man, in the center. He will serve his own pride as he attempts to outdo himself, placing immense importance in the physical value of the objects he utilizes in his service of God.
Parashat Terumahdoes not deal with the individual in his service of God. The essence of the Mishkan is defined in the very opening of the parashah: “And you shall make Me a sanctuary so that I shall dwell amongst you” (ibid. 25:8). The complex structure of the Mishkan befits the House of God, and if it is constructed and treated as prescribed in the Torah, the Divine Presence will rest upon the Mishkan and the entire nation. The commandment to build the Mishkan – in all its fine detail – is a Divine decree that is difficult for us to comprehend. We have no way of understanding how it is that certain vessels, constructed of certain materials, all of precise measure as dictated by the Torah, facilitate God’s revelation to His nation. Furthermore, how are we to understand that God speaks specifically from between the two cherubs of gold that adorn the ark? The Mishkan is the physical location of God’s revelation on this earth, which is the direct continuation of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai.
These two parashiyot, Yitro and Terumah, stand in sharp contrast to each other for they each express a unique mode of service of God. Parashat Yitro deals with the very personal experience of one who cleaves to God as a result of his own deep conviction and yearning for the spiritual encounter. Parashat Terumah, on the other hand, describes the institutionalized service of God as a necessary result of God’s revelation to man and His continued manifestation on this earth. (As God spoke through the fire on Mount Sinai, so He speaks from amidst the golden cherubs.)
These approaches are quite different in nature – for their motivating factors are so diverse – hence the disparity between Parashat Yitro and Parashat Terumah.
Rav Itzik Amar