Terumah by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Terumah: Sacrifice vs. Prayer


Scene: The Building of the Mishkan, the Holy Place where Aaron and his sons will conduct sacrificial offerings, in the sight of God and all Israel. Betzalel, the consummate architect, builder, craftsman, sculptor, and painter (among many other talents) is shouting orders at his men: “Watch that curtain—don’t tear it!” “Elihu, have you kicked over that bucket of gold paint again?” etc. Enter Safkan ben Emet, a wandering, self-styled philosopher, who spends a great deal of time walking through the Israelite camp and questioning the people.

Betzalel: Nu, nu, Chaverim; let’s speed it along. I promised High Priest Aaron that we would be done in two weeks. (Hums to himself; he is avidly enjoying this) Only we’ll never finish, Machloket, if you aren’t careful with those acacia-wood poles! Don’t treat them like tent-poles, my Friend.

(Chorus off: “Don’t worry, Boss Betzalel; we know what we’re doing.”)

Betzalel(sighing): That’s what I was afraid of. Well, perhaps now I can finish my matza and cheese from breakfast—I say now, a man building the most important structure in the world has no time to eat, much less to think!

Enter Safkan ben Emet, a wandering, self-styled philosopher.

Safkan: Good day, Master Betzalel. (He bows)

Betzalel (his mouth full of matza, he grabs a water-jug and takes a healthy swig): Oh. It’s you. Yes, yes; good day, Friend Safkan. Haven’t you business over in the camp, with—with—Baruch the Blacksmith? I saw you two arguing—I mean, discussing—something, yesterday.

Safkan (smiling): Yes, we were having at it: I was asking why horses require shoes, while camels and oxen do not; after all, they are all beasts of burden.

Betzalel (finishing his cheese): Can’t help you there, Safkan. Well; it’s nice seeing you, but I have a Mishkan to build, and can’t be bothered with small talk. Good—

Safkan: Have you not time for one question?

Betzalel: (sighing) Well, well: one question. Please, make it quick. We must sink the holes for the courtyard poles, and I must get started on the Golden Menorah.

Safkan: Lovely. And yet—and yet—

Betzalel (impatient): Well? Come, and speak quickly, Safkan. I know your tricks: you confuse and obfuscate all, with your pointed queries.

Safkan: All the more important, when you claim to be building “the most important building in the world,” as you say. How do you know?

Betzalel: Safkan, dear Safkan—I am no philosopher. I am a man of measurements, tools, and stitchery—though the Sisterhood is doing most of that. I—

Safkan: But you must have some sort of idea, what with your being the Chief Boss of this project.

Betzalel: True. Still and all, I do not contemplate the spiritual aspect of this Mishkan; my purpose make it beautiful and get it done, preferably as soon as possible. Perhaps you would do better to consult High Priest Aaron, or, better, Rabbi Moses. They could, I am certain, give you an answer better than I possibly could. And now, I really must bid you farewell: I have a job to carry out.

(Enter High Priest Aaron, looking worried.)

 Betzalel: Aaron Ha-Kohen! We were just speaking of you. Safkan, here—

Aaron (looking disgusted): Have I a lack of madmen, that you bring me yet another? Really, Betzalel—I just left my two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who have hatched yet another ridiculous idea—they want to send messengers to the pagan Moabites and Edomites, to see if they will worship with us! Can you imagine anything so foolish? I—

Betzalel: Softly, High Priest; ears are listening. Here, Safkan wishes to ask you a question.

 (He departs, calling: “You there, Choni! Be careful on that ladder!”)

 Aaron: Oh, great. (Sighs) What can I do for you, Safkan?

Safkan: I was just questioning Friend Betzalel about this grand spiritual structure he is building, and you, Sir, are supervising—what is its purpose and meaning?

Aaron: Purpose? Meaning? Why, to worship the One True God, of course. Really, Safkan—sometimes, your questions are outrageous, but this one is, frankly, simpleminded. (Patiently) Still, I am a lover of peace, and a pursuer of peace, and so will endeavor to answer you. It’s elementary: God gives us cattle, for example. We eat them, and enjoy other benefits from them. God, therefore, deserves a goodly number of cows in return, which we dispatch to Him via burnt-offerings. Simple, isn’t it?

Safkan: But why should God’s Holy House be an abattoir? I find the idea revolting.

Aaron: Are you a vegan?

Safkan: Not I: I do enjoy the smell and taste of meat, but hardly find it conducive to worship.

Aaron: (impatiently) Well, what would you have me do?

Safkan: I believe it would be far, far more spiritual to sit in a quiet circle, and, using poetry, communicate our feelings to our God. We could include a Jewish lecture—call it “A Word of Torah.” Why do you think, Milord Priest?

Aaron: Humph! No, no, it wouldn’t work.

Safkan: Why not? I have been meandering through the camp, questioning our people, and the support is there—more for prayer, as I call it, than sacrifice.

Aaron: (whispering) Safkan, I beg you, do not speak any more of this radical prayer idea of yours—I will be forced to consult with Marshal Joshua and Rabbi Moses my brother, and have you condemned for heresy. With a snap of my fingers, I can summon the Israelite Security Guards, and have you taken away, to a camp outside the precincts of the camp.

Safkan: Why, what have I done? I am merely a philosopher, asking my ethical and spiritual questions—whatever could be amiss with my honest querying?

Aaron: (sighing) I see that you will not cease from this dangerous, heretical notion of yours—what is it? Prayer?

Safkan: Yes, and I claim a thinking man’s right to question your self-serving sacrificial system….

Aaron: I have heard enough. Guards!

(Two burly guards appear, seize Safkan, and begin to carry him off: )

Guard 1: We will place him in the Black Tent of Custody, Master High Priest.

Aaron: Good. Thank you. Put a gag in his mouth, if he calls out while you are dragging him through the camp, as an example to others.

(They leave, hauling Safkan with them. Enter Moses)

 Moses: All peaceful here, Brother?

Aaron: It was not, but I took care of it. One troublesome individual.

Moses: H’m—I believe I know to whom you are referring. Ah! Does the Mishkan not gleam in the sunlight?

Aaron: It does indeed, Brother; it does (He smiles broadly).

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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