Parshas Terumah, ecological consciousness and animal welfare

February 16th, 2018 - Parsha Terumah

This week’s parsha, parshas terumah, is an entire parsha dedicated to a lengthy description of the construction of the sanctuary. No other commandment is as detailed and thought out as the instructions given to the Israelites for the construction. The sanctuary calls for construction materials of gold, silver, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices and gems.

The sanctuary’s inner chamber included the tablets that included the Ten Commandments. The sanctuary itself is described in the Torah’s words from this week’s portion as a sort of house, a vessel for the deity of the Jewish people.

Instructions are also given for the construction of menorahs, an alter and cherubim that gilded the ark itself. These items were made from precious metals and were eventually carried into the Promised Land by the next generation.

Reading over the Hebrew verses of this parsha, one word in particular sticks out to me from the Hebrew. The animal skins described as dressing the outer covering of the tent of the tabernacle are identified as tachash. What was or what is this mysterious creature?

The word tachash is used several other times in the Torah, but redundantly in exodus 25, 26, 35, 36, and 39 and Numbers 4 and Ezekiel 17, as only identifying the skin of the animal used to dress the outer covering of the tent of the tabernacle.

The text from the Torah did not preserve the identity of this creature. The first translation we have available that we can rely upon comes from Targum Onkelos in Aramaic. The Aramaic translation translates it as sasguna. The Aramaic word was not also preserved with time. It is likely a word that combines two words (“six” and “colors”) in Aramaic.

By the era of Rashi, the identity of the creature was a mystery. Rashi’s commentary notes that whatever the animal was, since the word has fallen out of use, the animal is likely no longer in existence.

Modern academic research suggests the animal may have been a dugong, Mediterranean sea lion, or possibly even a giraffe.

Extinction. What we are experiencing in the text here is suggestive of a real problem. Without this animal, the Israelites would have been unable to create a sanctuary for G-d. We have a sacred responsibility to ensure the survival of sustainable wild and domesticated animal populations.

This is a real problem in Israel today. Syrian brown bears, leopards, lions, hippos… these are just a few of the animals mentioned in the Torah that once lived in the Land of Israel, but today are extinct in the wild.

The last Arabian leopard captured in Israel was in 2002 as it chased a house cat into a home in the Northern Aravah of Israel. It was so malnourished that it was captured with ease. It died in 2007. The last sighting of an Arabian leopard was in 2011. As of last year, they have been officially documented as extinct in the wild in Israel.

Our responsibility to protect animals is highlighted in this week’s Torah portion insofar as it serves as a reminder of the consequences if we avoid this responsibility—a sanctuary for G-d here on earth cannot be built by ourselves. Animals must be protected.