Parashat Terumah lays out the first details of the Mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God's presence that goes with the Israelites through the desert. If we read the Torah straight through, these details seem to be what Moshe went up to the mountain to get for forty days and forty nights after the Ten Commandments.
Some midrashim suggest that the Torah should not be read in sequence. Instead, we should understand the Mishkan instructions as a response to the Golden Calf incident that follows. The thinking is: After God learned that the people craved a physical symbol of God's presence, God relented and gave them this building so that they would not be tempted to build idols.
Either way, our attention is drawn to the contrast between the careful, disciplined details of the design of the Mishkan, and the spontaneous, raucous creation of the Golden Calf. So which interpretation makes more sense? Which should have come first?
We are a week into the Winter Olympics this year as we read Parashat Terumah, and some of the interesting commentary on TV has been about the evolution of the sport of figure skating. I remember how it used to be. First, each skater had to perform "compulsories" -- a series of figures and jumps that would be standard. Then there was the opportunity for the original program.
It's similar now -- rather than have a separate compulsory phase, there have been more and more requirements that are built into the short and the long programs. One purpose is to make the judging and comparing more fair, more standard. But I think the other insight is that even the most creative and individual expression is built on a careful, disciplined foundation. You have to master the figure-eight before you can choreograph a series of dances and jumps.
Parashat Terumah is like the compulsory elements in skating. The Torah says that spirituality is not built by each of us individually from scratch. In the parasha, each person gave a voluntary contribution (terumah) for the construction of the Mishkan, but the contributions were then channeled into a specific structure. When the building was completed, in all its intricacy, then at the end of the book of Exodus the presence of God, the Kavod, would appear there. And then creativity, spontaneity, and even questioning could begin.
So I like the interpretation that all of these instructions came after the Golden Calf was built, not before. Spirituality doesn't work when you do it from scratch every time. The Calf led to conflict, anarchy, disillusionment, and burnout within the group. Then came the Mishkan -- a foundation, a discipline, a better way to begin.
Ask the ice skater, or the writing and the entrepreneur and the scientific researcher: You can't reach the heights until you're comfortable with the discipline. With prayer and mitzvot it is the same. If we had to write our own prayers, we couldn't keep it up. If we had to derive the mitzvot, we might not get past the first twenty, let alone come up with 613 opportunities to enhance the world and our lives.
So appreciate the figure-eights, the compulsories. You wouldn't want to get there and stop there, but they are the first step toward climbing the spiritual heights.