This week’s Parsha, Terumah, is famous for a very unique reason. It describes the Mishkan (tabernacle), a portable sanctuary where the Israelites would offer their supplications to G-d. It talks about its measurements, materials, and the various decorations found inside. What’s unique about it is the amount of detail it goes into. The Sedra describes every single thing about it; the planks and fixtures, the menorah, and the curtains; it doesn’t stop at what they are, it describes exactly how they should look. Thanks to this, there’s no doubt about exactly how the Mishkan appeared- useful for those of us who wish to visualise the beautiful sanctuary. But it also raises questions about our nature, and our priorities. Why does the Torah go into such great detail about the externalities of the tabernacle? Isn’t this a bit materialistic? Surely, it’s what’s on the inside that matters most!
I remember I began studying Chumash daily about a month or so before we read Parshas Terumah. I was totally unprepared for Terumah. Already unused to scheduled Torah study, the dynamics of the Sedra confused and overwhelmed me. I wanted to read about journeys and miracles, of distant nations and Holy men. And here I was, reading about curtain measurements. It all seemed a bit distant, and I found it very hard to draw a certain moral lesson from the Parsha. I was never content with just reading the Torah; I had to apply it to everyday life. And so, one of the very first questions I asked my rabbi was about Parshas Terumah. Namely; why does it go into such great detail? I wasn’t surprised to hear his answer. He told me other people had asked the same thing. It’s an unusual Parsha, for sure. And it was then that I learnt, for the first time, about the concept of hiddur mitzvah.
I translate hiddur mitzvah as love for G-d. Obviously, that’s not a direct translation. Not even close. What it actually refers to, is when one loves G-d and His mitzvos so much that they go that extra mile to fulfil the mitzvah. An example would be the esrog. Esrogim are the yellow citrus fruits which make up one-quarter of the four species we shake at Sukkos. Technically, any citron will do. So why does it have to be an esrog? Because of the esrog’s outstanding physical beauty and beautiful scent. True, a lemon is just as much of a ‘citron’, but it isn’t as beautiful as the esrog. By choosing the most beautiful- and, coincidentially, most expensive and hard to come by- citron, we are proving that we love G-d so much that we want to honour his wishes and then some!
So does this mean that Parshas Terumah is, after all, superficial and materialistic? Decidedly not. Contrary to how it may look at first glance, it’s quite the opposite. It’s not saying it’s what’s on the outside that matters- it’s reiterating the message that it’s what’s inside which counts for the most. This means intentions and emotions. The physical beauty we read about in this week’s Sedra turns out to be not so physical after all. It’s instead a means through which we can honour our Creator. If the finery of the Mishkan were used for anything else, it would be extravagent- sinful, even. Like so many other things- physical weapons, and on a different level, speech- it’s not what you use, but how you use it, which really matters.