One hundred and eleven years ago, in 1904, the International Olympic Committee decided to make official a custom that was actually practiced in the world for many hundreds of years. In fact, the custom has been historically recorded since Ancient Greece as a symbol in those times of three distinct eras of humanity. I am referring here to the custom of recognizing the merit of champions of various types of competitions by presenting them with medals made of three very particular metals: gold, silver and copper. In Ancient Greece, these metals were alluding to what the Greeks believed to be the age of gods (gold), the age of eternal youth (silver) and the age of heroes (copper). Later on in history, gold and silver were still used as such, while copper became the main element in an alloy called “bronze” which the third place competitors received.
But the custom of using these three metals is not just about Ancient Greece. In the Torah, it actually carries a much wider and more interesting symbolism. In the 25th chapter of the Book of Shemot (Exodus), right at the beginning of Parashat Terumah, the Torah tells us the following:
Hashem spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the children of Israel and let them take for Me an offering, from every person whose heart will inspire them to give you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold and silver and copper. — Exodus 25:1-3
What is the significance of these metals and why does Hashem want them for the Sanctuary that He is commanding the Jews to make? Gold and silver, metals which are shiny and precious by themselves and have been used throughout the ages for jewelry and decorations are fairly understandable. Copper, on the other hand, is a more “industrial” metal, more suited for tools and weapons than for pretty things or as a symbol of royalty. There was even a time in the early history of mankind aptly labeled the Bronze Age, not because those people were using copper in creating beauty, but rather in creating useful objects to help them in their daily tasks.
And this is really the first lesson of the use of gold, silver and copper for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle): serving G-d is not just about the looks. It is an useful exercise for us, humans, to be able to connect to our Creator in a way that brings together our potential for art and beauty with our potential for useful creativity. The world needs more than just a foil of gold or a foil of silver – in other words, it needs more than just a foil of pretty, shiny things to exist. Our energy and dedication need to focus also in becoming what G‑d wanted us to be: active partners in His creation. In Bereshit, at the end of Creation, the Torah tells us that Hashem rested מכל מלאכתו אשר ברא אלקים לעשות. Often mistranslated, this fragment really talks about the role Hashem wanted for us: the world was created laasot, to still be made, modified, improved, even today, by the hands and minds of G-d’s creations, us humans.
But this is not the only message of the three metals…
An absolutely beautiful explanation about them comes from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, much better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement. In quoting both the Midrash and the Zohar, the Lubavitcher Rebbe talks about the metals as “prizes” (if you will) for three different categories of Jews.
To make his case, the question he asks is the following: when exactly was this terumah (offering) taken? There are three moments that can guide us: Matan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai), the Egel haZahav (the Golden Calf) and the receiving of the second set of Tablets which also marks the first ever celebrated day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
At Sinai – as we know it – the Jews were elevated to such a spiritual height that even the lowest person was able to see and experience things nobody before or after in history was able to. Also, the Giving of the Torah marked the forgiving of all the sins and a completely clean slate for everyone present. However, almost immediately after, the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf and were in dire need for atonement. And this atonement actually came during the third event, when Moshe went up on the mountain to receive the second Tablets and establish Yom Kippur. In a sense, with Yom Kippur, the Jews all became baalei teshuvah – repenting Jews.
And this – the Rebbe explains – is the key to understanding the three metals. Gold is reserved for the baalei teshuvah, because they experienced the lows of life and spirituality and still had the strength to come back to the right path. They are the true champions, the ones who gave the most and who went through the hardest struggle. Silver is the symbol of the people whose life was easier from the start, as they were never exposed too much to the “temptations” of sin. Maybe it is the people who – because of their upbringing – were always “shielded” in a way from the world at large, growing up to know only the world of the yeshivot, kosher food, proper observance of Shabbat and so on. Their reward, silver, is a bit lower than gold, precisely because their accomplishment was easier, as fewer spiritual obstacles were placed in their path. And lastly, copper or bronze is reserved as a symbol for the process of repentance in general. Compared to the other two, copper has a much darker hue and can become tarnished much easier. However, with proper care and polishing, it can be made again to shine. And that is probably what we can all relate to the strongest: how to become beautiful and shiny again (spiritually speaking, of course) after our straying from the right path has darkened and tarnished our minds and souls.
Of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is not the only one connecting the three metals to the idea of teshuvah. Even through a simple glance at the verses of the Torah we can make some connections… Gold, for example, is alluding to our greatest sin as a nation, the worshiping of the Golden Calf. Silver (in Hebrew: כסף) can be linked to the word כיסופים — “longings” or ”yearnings”, making reference to the things people often want for themselves and which are not always good for them. And copper, apparently an “inferior” metal is a symbol of a person’s actions, often seen (especially by other religions and cultures) as inferior to what is sometimes called “pure faith”. Judaism takes a stand against such an approach: we are a nation of naaseh ve’nishma, of action before faith, which flips the whole idea of what’s “superior” and what’s “inferior” on its head.
But let us continue exploring the metals mentioned in our parasha, this time through other lenses…
When the Torah starts describing how these metals were actually used in the construction of the Mishkan, we discover an interesting thing: these metals are rarely alone. In fact, in many instances, they are used in combination with other non-metallic elements and more specifically with cloth and wood. A few simple examples: the Mizbeach (Altar), the Shulchan (the Table for the Showbreads) and the Aron (the Ark where the luchot, the tablets, were kept). In all these cases, the Torah describes that the object had to be made from wood and then covered with gold.
The Gemarah makes a very interesting point: the objects should be regarded halakhically as being made of wood, not gold, despite the fact that what people could actually see was the gold covering. And that idea carries a very important message: wood is alive and dynamic; metal is dead and static. Trees grow, they bear fruit, and they bend in the wind. Metal is unyielding, unchanging, without potential. In order to reach out to G-d, people must be more like the wood than like the gold. They need to be able to change internally, to grow, to learn how to bend their wishes to His, to keep their heart open to a message that might be contrary to the one they like or are used to. If people were spiritually cold and unyielding like the gold, any communication and any relation between each other and between people and G-d would be virtually impossible.
But the gold, silver and copper mentioned by our parasha have yet another message, this time brought about not by what the Torah tells us, but rather by what it doesn’t tell us. Probably the most “popular” metal of all times, iron, is conspicuously missing from the enumeration of terumah. In fact, iron was never collected for the Tabernacle or the Temple, nor was it ever used in these edifices. A verse from the Book of Kings tells us an interesting story:
When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. — Kings I 6:7
At first glance, this verse is simply talking about the exact location of the stone cutting: at the quarry or at the site where the Temple (really the successor of the Mishkan) was built. But the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:6) talks about a very special animal that was created by G-d on the sixth day of Creation, right before the first Shabbat: the shamir worm. It was an animal whose sole purpose was to help in the building of the Temple. It was able to cut any stone it was placed on, and as such it replaced the need for any iron cutting tool.
The symbolism is phenomenal: iron is often used for weapons; it bears the mark of death and suffering. In the holiest place in the world, a Sanctuary in honor of Hashem – who is the Source of Good and Life – could not be built using a tool of death. Another solution, a living cutting tool had to be used to make the Temple happen, a solution which allowed for the stones to remain pure and untainted by death.
And finally, to close the circle, an idea from Rashi’s commentary on our parasha:
All these materials were given voluntarily. Every individual came and gave what his heart prompted him to give, with the exception of silver, which was given in equal measure by everyone: a half a shekel each. — Rashi on Parshat Terumah
In order to build a house so that G-d can dwell in the midst of the people, the Jews first had to look deeply inside their own hearts. They had to make a choice and decide what they were willing to give from their most prized possessions (valuable metals), for the benefit of the community and for the glory of G-d.
And, at the same time, this exercise was also about equality. Precisely because people are different, because they have different means and different desires in their hearts, the Torah tells us that at least a part of that contribution had to be equally collected. Because it was important that the House made for G-d’s glory belongs to everyone in equal shares, a true ohngv kfk treh h,kp, ,hc – ”house of prayer for all peoples.”
Going from the sacred to the profane, from the rigid to the malleable, from the freely given to the equally collected, from being a prize to being a reminder of our journey as a nation, from symbolizing sin to symbolozing teshuvah – the metals of Parashat Terumah offer us a glimpse into the fascinating world of Jewish ritual, as well as into the eternal and complex link between man and G-d.
— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC (2nd minyian)