Torah Ecology: Terumah 2018 (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19)

In last year’s initial exploration of Terumah, I looked at the structure of the narrative about building the Tabernacle and how its construction alludes to and parallels the creation story, setting out the environment from the outside in, then furnishing it from the inside out, as G-d set out the world then filled it with creatures.

In the creation story, there is no death, and no creature kills another for food. In this cosmos, though, in the Tabernacle, there is not only meat-eating but animal sacrifice, the transactional meeting point between the Israelites and transcendence. I touched on a possible way to understand the meaning of that regular event, suggesting the sacrificial animal substitutes for some human sin, but this meaning has come into sharper focus over the last year.

But what “sin,” specifically? One possibility is, it has something to do with human beings bringing death to all of creation and generating a situation in which all are predators and/or preyed upon including humans themselves. In a transaction the dimensions of which are not yet clear to me, the sacrifice of an animal takes the human being out of that cycle of prey and predator as long as human beings are “in the image of G-d,” although I’m not yet 100% certain what that means.

Although many commentaries relate “in the image” to moral capacity, I don’t think that’s a one-to-one correlation. Animals are not “in the image” but rather “after its kind” — yet they are morally accountable for taking human life.

And there are three parts to human ontology, not two, as I once thought was such a neat equation in the text: body — represented in ritual commandments, and soul — represented in ethical commandments. Instead we have body (בָּשָׂ֕ר basar, lifeless flesh), body animated by the breath of G-d,  (נֶ֥פֶשׁ nefesh, often translated “soul”), and “in the image,” which hints at both and more.

Since “in the image” would suggest something about a conception of G-d, perhaps the allusive, elusive quality of the text in this regard is purposeful. Perhaps it will never be possible to fully decipher the meaning of “in the image.”


Following are  two short passages, the only two in Terumah, that refer to animals. The first is about animals’ contribution to the Tabernacle, the skins of a domesticated animal and the skins of a wild animal.

The second is the passage that startled me last year: “….here is this beautiful structure, created from the finest the Israelites had to offer, a portable home for G-d, a place where these wanderers met with transcendence, and within this structure, the tools of animal sacrifice, flesh-hooks and shovels and pots to take up and carry away the ashes that remained from a living creature. I found myself somewhat against my will dwelling on that phrase, imagining the creature brought, surely unwillingly, to that place, bound, crying with fear, killed, hung and finally burned.”

Ex. 26:14
וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ מִכְסֶה֙ לָאֹ֔הֶל עֹרֹ֥ת אֵילִ֖ם מְאָדָּמִ֑ים וּמִכְסֵ֛ה עֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים מִלְמָֽעְלָה׃
And make for the tent a covering of tanned ram skins, and a covering of dolphin skins above.

Ex. 27:3
וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ סִּֽירֹתָיו֙ לְדַשְּׁנ֔וֹ וְיָעָיו֙ וּמִזְרְקֹתָ֔יו וּמִזְלְגֹתָ֖יו וּמַחְתֹּתָ֑יו לְכָל־כֵּלָ֖יו תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה נְחֹֽשֶׁת׃
Make the pails for removing its ashes, as well as its scrapers, basins, flesh hooks, and fire pans—make all its utensils of copper.

With these two passages, we enter the world of animal sacrifice, which is the main topic in the Animals’ Story for the rest of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, a subtext to the human story, the developing relationship between G-d and G-d’s people en route to the Land of Israel.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!