Parshat Terumah: Falling in Love, Staying in Love

Here is the link to the Parsha class where the artist and rabbi are in conversation:

For more about Artist Maxine Lee Ewaschuk:

For more about Rabbi Aaron Levy:

Piece Description, Maxine Lee Ewaschuk, “Yidvenu Libo”:
Like Parshat Terumah is an assemblage of the materials that will be brought by the Israelites to build the Mishkan, this multimedia work is an assemblage of themes and associations that came up during my study of the text. Given that the majority of the parsha is made up of a list of materials, I found encouragement to use a wide variety of media on top of this acrylic on canvas painting, including glass and stone, and brass beads, tulle, and cotton embroidery thread, which would evoke the text’s almost overwhelming visual imagery.

Thematically, there are a few different themes that made their way into this painting. The work draws on images from various midrashim, describing the items that were donated and the people who brought them. The pyramidal forms of the donation piles recall their sources – the riches that the Israelites took from Egypt when they left. The reappropriation of wealth from the exploiters, to the labourers, then to the community led me to use the Social Realist murals of the New Deal era as a reference point for this work’s visual style. The painting depicts the women who, according to a midrash, donate their valuables to the building of the Mishkan rather than the golden calf.

While all of the operations of the Mishkan will later be performed only by Kohanim and Leviim, this early stage presents a moment in which all of the people, especially those who often have less access to formal ritual are intimately and integrally involved with the foundations of their communal structure and divine service. In the midst of a plethora of commandments, donations for the Mishkan are asked for only from those who are willing to do so. Opting in to contributing to the construction of the Mishkan is an act the mefarshim view as praiseworthy. However the invitation, as stitched on the upper left of the painting, is rescinded when enough resources are amassed. The limits of voluntary religious participation that is often placed on women is referred to at the bottom-right of the painting, which utilizes some of the language of kiddushin, which both invokes and enacts halacha. This is also a reference to marriage and intimate relationships.

The opening of Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer imagines the Mishkan as a chuppah for G-d and Israel. As well, the Midrash Tanchuma describes Moshe’s objection to the donation of copper mirrors. It goes on to describe how in Egypt, Israelite women would use these mirrors to flirt with their husbands, sustaining their relationships, which would ultimately save the Jewish people. Rather than rejecting the mirrors, G-d tells that they are especially dear to G-d, and that they should in fact be accepted. The woman in the foreground of the painting looks at the viewer through her mirror, implicating them in a personal relationship that facilitates an analogous loving relationship between us and G-d.

Discussion Questions:
1. This mixed media art piece has at its center multiple piles of jewellery. Observe the shape, colour and texture of these piles. Are there particular features that stand out to you? How do these piles distinguish themselves from the rest of the scene?

2. The stitching on the bottom right corner, "כדת משה וישראל," is a fragment of the traditional wedding vow formulation, “Behold you are consecrated unto me with this ring In accordance with the law of Moses and Israel“. What connection does the phrase have with this week’s portion? How does omitting the first 6 words affect the meaning of the sentence?

3. The woman in the foreground is holding up a mirror, and instead of looking at her own reflection or past it and onto the scene ahead of her, her gaze is directed at what’s behind her. What message is Maxine Lee Ewaschuck conveying through this artistic decision? If she is able to peer beyond the 4th wall of the image and directly at you, what would her reaction be to the sight? With this inter-dimensional channel of communication opened, what would she tell you?

4. The faint white stitching in the sky quotes the portion: כל איש אשר ידבינו לבו, “every person whose heart is motivated to give”. Though this initial call to donate is explicit in the Torah, it is soon rescinded when an over abundance of materials are donated. What is the purpose of this open call and how does it sit with the text and the image once the realities on the ground shift? Have you ever given a gift that was not received?

Rabbi Aaron Levy:

What can the process of making art teach us about ourselves? About the world? About God? Set while the Israelites are still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, just months after their Exodus from Egypt, Parashat Terumah begins with God telling Moshe:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת ל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי׃

Speak to the Children of Israel, that they take a contribution (terumah) for Me; from
every person whose heart is willing, you shall take My contribution. (Ex. 25:2)

After listing the varied physical materials that will be solicited from the people, the Torah
explains the purpose of this voluntary collection:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃

They shall make a holy place (mikdash) for Me, and I will dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

What’s involved in making a mikdash – or as it’s called in the next verse, the mishkan, the
dwelling place – that brings God’s Presence among the Israelites?

Among the chapters upon chapters of detailed descriptions of all the indoor and outdoor
furniture that comprise this holy space, we read about both the large enclosure approximately half the length and half the width of a Canadian (or American) football field and the actual mishkan – the wooden structure at the heart of this courtyard. The mishkan is to be covered by four layers of custom-woven textiles. The bottommost, most ornate fabric was made of 10 cloths, each woven from twisted linen yarn dyed blue, purple, and scarlet and woven with the design of keruvim – sphinxes.

These 10 cloths were sewn together in two groups of five cloths apiece, and then those two, larger curtains were connected to each other with golden clasps to form one larger tapestry that would cover three sides plus the top of the mishkan’s wooden structure.

In the Torah’s words:

וְעָשִׂיתָ חֲמִשִּׁים קַרְסֵי זָהָב וְחִבַּרְתָּ אֶת־הַיְרִיעֹת אִשָּׁה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ בַּקְּרָסִים וְהָיָה הַמִּשְׁכָּן אֶחָד׃

You shall make 50 clasps of gold, and you shall join the curtains one to another with the
clasps, so that the mishkan be one. (Ex. 26:6) Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra comments on the seemingly unnecessary words at the end of the verse, “that the mishkan be one”:

והנה עשר יריעות הוא המשכן והמשכן קראו אחד כולל הכל.

And see, the 10 curtains are the mishkan and the mishkan is called one, and
encompasses all. He’s stressing that despite the fact that the inner covering of the Mishkan is composed of 10 curtains, together they comprise the Mishkan, which is one entity, not just a pile of parts.

Ibn Ezra continues more philosophically:

כי כל גוף אינו דבר אחד רק הוא מחובר מאחדים. וככה השם הנכבד שהוא אחד כולל הכל ונקרא אחד. וכן העולם הקטן והגדול.

For every entity is not one thing but is composed of individual pieces. And in this
manner, the Honoured God, Who is One, contains everything and is called One. The
same is true with the microcosm (ha-katan) and the macrocosm (ha-gadol).

Just as the mishkan is made up of many pieces that create one whole, God is one entity, even though God contains everything. This integrated unity also applies to humans – the microcosm – and the universe – the macrocosm. In a similar vein, Rambam, or Maimonides, writes similarly in his Guide for the Perplexed: Know that this whole universe is nothing but one individual… The differences between its substances, I mean the substances of this sphere with everything that is within it, are like the differences between the limbs of a human being… Accordingly, you should represent the whole universe as one living individual in motion and possessing a soul. (1:72) Note that unlike Ibn Ezra, Rambam leaves God out of this unity. Rambam doesn’t describe God as containing everything in the universe. God is the Creator, force, and life of the one universe, but is “separate from all its parts.” For Rambam, God is totally transcendent, beyond the physical realm. However, in kabbalah – medieval Jewish mysticism – God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent – present in this world. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero teaches:

אין בלתו ואין לך דבר שיהיה מבלעדיו, חס ושלום, שאין שום נמצא שלא יהיה כח הא-לוה בו… אלא הא-לוה כל נמצא, ואין כל נמצא הא-לוה.

There is nothing but God and you cannot find anything that exists apart from God, for there is nothing that does not have the power of God in it… Rather, God is everything that exists, though everything that exists is not God. (Elimah Rabbati 1:4, chpt. 1)

God pervades everything and everyone; we are all part of God. Of course, Rabbi Cordovero cautions against pantheistic thinking, that the physical world is God. But God not only includes, but even suffuses the universe at large and unto all its parts. Back to our parashah and the mishkan: the purpose of the mishkan isn’t literally to house God; the Torah doesn’t say “ve-shakhanti betokho” – that God will dwell in it, but “be-tokham” – among them, the Israelites.

It’s designed by God and fashioned by humans to bring God- consciousness into our people’s midst, to teach us about its Divine architect. The mishkan is a work of art. All art has the potential to achieve a parallel purpose to the mishkan. Art gives us insight into the artist. And although it may contain an assemblage of canvas, paints, glass, stones, metals, and fabrics, it is a unified work, called by a name. The unified construction of the many pieces of the mishkan demonstrates an individual person’s unity, the universe’s unity, and God’s unity with the universe. How might such awareness, inspired by the mishkan or other art, influence not only how we perceive, but also how we act toward, ourselves, one another, the earth, and God?