Terumah -- Exodus 25:1-27:19

CoverDesign_TerumahAddressing fellow architects at a meeting sponsored by the Art Workers' Guild at Barnard's Inn, London, on November 20, 1891, renowned English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist William Morris (1834 – 1896) critiqued a recent building project:

I repeat again, I think it is the most important side of architecture altogether, the choice of material and the use of material… But what he has produced, at the very best, is not a building which really forms part of the living shell and skin of the earth on which we live, but is a mere excrescence upon it, a toy which might almost as well, except for the absolute necessity that the people should have a roof to cover them, have remained simply a nicely executed drawing in the architect's office."

Morris was vexed by buildings that he felt no longer reflected the noble ideals of architecture and that had abandoned the morality of materials, namely, the ways materials meet and mesh with their surroundings, the way form meets with function, and the way in which design becomes a transcendent experience.

In this week’s reading, the Israelites are called upon to contribute a remarkable panoply of the most moral of all materials: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. Together, these precious materials will allow the Divine to dwell in the details of the Mishkan (the portable desert Tabernacle). The command to Moses could not be any more clear:

Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amidst them.” (Exodus 25:8).

The inner chamber is veiled by a woven curtain. That chamber is the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant is placed, and the Ark houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the Ark’s cover, hover two winged cherubim hewn of pure gold. In the outer chamber, the seven-branched menorah stands and showbread is arranged upon a table.

Mies van der Rohe once quipped that he preferred to be good rather than merely interesting. Clearly, the Tabernacle is more than just good design; it is also the template for a transformative encounter within a “living shell and skin of the earth on which we live.” That is simply divine!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Another in our series of original illustrations inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract depiction of the spiritually and creatively charged space between the Ark's cherubim. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.