The Supreme Importance of the Definite Article


This week’s parshah, Parshat Terumah, which details the items to be used in the construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle, contains one very important usage of the definite article, or the “hey ha-yidiah” in Hebrew.

EXODUS 25:1-27:19
How important is the word “the,” really? Most of us just throw our “the” around indiscriminately in practically every sentence without really paying it much attention. But, ask anyone who graduated from “THE” Ohio State University, and they will make certain to emphasize the definitive nature of the definite article “the,” thereby highlighting that the alumnus in question did not graduate from just any university in the State of Ohio (Bowling Green State University, The University of Cincinnati, Oberlin College et al) but rather one, very specific university — with a very specific football team.
This week’s parshah, Parshat Terumah, which details the items to be used in the construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle, contains one very important usage of the definite article, or the “hey ha-yidiah” in Hebrew. In Exodus 26:15 we read:
“You shall make the planks of the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.”
The commentators are immediately drawn to the use of the definitive article “the” in the phrase “the planks.” The Torah certainly could have said: “Make planks,” just as it did with nearly every other material in its blueprint for the Tabernacle. “They shall make an ark” (Exodus 25:10); “You shall make a cover” (Exodus 25:17); “You shall make a table” (Exodus 25:23), etc.
Rashi — Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105) — the preeminent medieval Jewish scholar, quoting a midrash from Midrash Tanchumah (Terumah: 9) explains that the Torah’s use of the definitive article is very intentional: “Why the planks? [To indicate] those very planks that are standing ready specifically for this project.”
The Midrash continues: “Our ancestor, Jacob, planted them. When he came down to Egypt, he said to his sons: ‘My sons! You are one day destined to be redeemed from here, and when you are redeemed, the Holy One will tell you that you are to make a Tabernacle for God. Rise up and plant cedars now, so that when God tells you to make a Tabernacle, these specific cedars will be ready.’ Hence, the Torah speaks of ‘the boards,’ the boards their father had arranged should be ready.”
For many of us, this midrash will immediately bring to mind another famous story, this time from the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), depicting the magical folk-character of Honi the Circle Maker happening upon an man planting a carob tree. “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?” Honi asked. “Seventy years,” the man replied. “And do you think you shall live for another 70 years?” asked Honi incredulously. “Perhaps not,” the old man said, “but when I entered this world, there were carob trees; so just as my ancestors planted for me, so, too, will I plant for future generations.”
In both of these stories, the human virtue of foresight is highlighted. Jacob, foretelling the prophecy of redemption, saw fit to plant cedar trees, not simply for some ambiguous future use but, rather, for the Tabernacle specifically. Similarly, the man planting the carob tree does so not for his own immediate benefit, but rather for the profit of his posterity.
But what is particularly enlightening about these two examples of foresight is the fact that they are born of actions, not merely of thought. Many people in our world “think” about the future. But what these two midrashim illustrate is that words, in and of themselves, are rarely a means to an end. We must take tangible action — indeed, we must plant — which means that we must be willing to get our hands dirty in the process of building a better Jewish future.
So what does all this mean in practicality? It means that in my estimation, the questions we should be asking ourselves as a Jewish community are not:
1. Will my children and my grandchildren choose to live Jewish lives after I am gone?
2. Will our Jewish institutions survive this time of contraction and retrenchment?
3. How will our Jewish world learn to adapt to the changing realities of our contemporary society?
But rather:
1. How do I demonstrate my love for Judaism to my family? Do I bring them with me to synagogue? Do I go to synagogue? If I don’t go to synagogue, what can I do (consistently!) with my children that will underscore my personal commitment to my Jewish tradition?
2. What have I done for my favorite Jewish institution lately? Do I give my tzedakah to Jewish causes and organizations? What can I do to be a leader in my community?
3. What kind of future do I want to see for our Jewish world? What will I do today — and what will I do tomorrow — to ensure that we will dictate our Jewish future?
Ultimately, this is the supreme importance of the definite article. It is active, not passive; it is about owning your destiny, not being a slave to it. And ultimately, like the planters who came before us, our job as Jews is not merely to shape “a” future; it is to shape “the” future we want to see.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He lives in Center City Philadelphia with his wife Eliana and their three daughters. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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