The most famous phrase in this week’s parashah, Terumah, comes near the beginning of God’s instructions for the building of the Mishkan, Israel’s portable sanctuary: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them–ve’asu Li mikdash veshakhanti betokham” (Exodus 25:8).
The word betokham, translated here as “among them,” has long puzzled me. This week, I’ve come a decision as to what it really means. In preparation for my teaching this Shabbat morning, I’m going to give you some clues, so you can see the interpretative path I’ve taken. It comes down to the meaning of the root of the word, which is three letters: Tav, vav, khaf—t-v-kh. Here are just three examples of the word in other parts of the Bible; from context, what does it mean?
Example one, from the creation story in Genesis 2:9: “And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of lifein the middle of the garden–betokh hagan–and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.” Hint: as you envision the garden, what is the placement of that tree of life?
Example two, from God’s first covenant with Avram in Genesis 15:10: “He brought Him all these [animals] and cut them in two–batavekh–placing each half opposite the other.” How do you envision that Avram cut the animals? Where did he make the incision?
Example three, from the Torah’s instructions for measuring Levite territory in Numbers 35:5: “You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side, and two thousand on the north side, with the town in the center —batavekh. That shall be the pasture for their towns.” Based on the rules of geometry, where must the town be in order to establish 2000 cubits accurately in each direction?
When we talk about this on Shabbat, we’ll see that my definition of “in their midst–betokham–has serious implications for Jewish life, especially in Israel. Four remarkable things happened there this week that we’ll mention on Shabbat, but one I want to share in advance. As the new members of the Knesset are being welcomed to their parliamentary roles, they get to give their first speech. One member of the new party Yesh Atid, Ruth Calderone, had the youtube clip of her speech go viral. Here’s the English translation of her speech. Hebrew speakers will find that this video of her speech already has more than 75,000 views!
Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi David Wise