Parashat Terumah begins by listing the Terumah, the gifts that Hashem tells Moshe that Bnei Yisrael can donate to the Mishkan if they so desire. The first eleven items on the list are written without their purposes stated. For example, the first materials listed, “Zahav VaChesef UNchoshet,” “gold, silver, and copper” (Shemot 25:3), are written without the Torah saying “used to coat the vessels or altars.” Conversely, when the last four items are listed, the Torah states their uses in the Mikdash: “Shemen LaMaor, Besamim LeShemen HaMishchah VeLiKtoret HaSamim Avnei Shoham VeAvnei Milu’im LaEiphod VeLaChoshen,” “Oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and (a separate mixture of spices for) the aromatic incense, Shoham stones, and stones for the settings, for the Eiphod and the breastplate” (25:6-7). Only then does the Torah formulate the command to build the Mikdash: “VeAsu Li Mikdash VeShachanti BeTocham,” “And they shall make a Mikdash for Me, so that I may dwell among them” (25:8). Why does the Torah list the purposes only of those items at the end of the list? What is so special about these particular items? Additionally, why is it that the Torah describes the uses of these items in the Mikdash even before it commands the building of the Mikdash itself?
Rav Tzvi Dov Kanotopsky, the former Mara DeAtra of the Young Israel of West Hempstead and Eastern Parkway, offers an interesting answer to both questions. He states that the functions of the four items listed symbolize four distinctions that Hashem makes, which we mention in Havdalah. The first distinction is that Hashem is “HaMavdil Bein Kodesh LeChol,” “The One who separates between holy and mundane.” This is alluded to by the spices for the anointment oil, which was used to sanctify the originally mundane vessels of the Mikdash so that they could be used in holiness. The second distinction mentioned in Havdalah is that Hashem is “HaMavdil Bein Ohr LeChoshech,” “The One who separates between light and darkness.” This is alluded to by the oil of illumination, which helped light the Ner Tamid, the eternal flame. The third distinction is that Hashem is “HaMavdil Bein Yisrael LaAmim,” “The One who separates between Israel and the other nations.” This is alluded to by the stones for the Eiphod and the Choshen, which contained twelve stones on which Moshe was instructed, “VeHaAvanim Tihyena Al Shemot Bnei Yisrael Sheteim Esrei Al Shemotam,” “The stones shall be according to the names of the sons of Israel (the Shevatim), twelve according to their names” (28:21). The final distinction that we mention in Havdalah, when Shabbat leads into Yom Tov, is that Hashem is “HaMavdil Bein Kodesh LeKodesh,” “The One who separates between holy and holy.” This is alluded to by the spices used for the Ketoret, which was the only holy item that was allowed to be brought into the Kodesh HaKodashim on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It is because of the four separations represented by these items that their uses are specifically stated, unlike the previous eleven items.
By understanding the symbolism behind these four items, says Rav Kanotopsky, one can answer why these items’ functions are listed before the commandment of building the Mikdash itself. In order to build a Mikdash, one must first understand the meaning of the word “Kadosh,” “holy.” Holiness is the recognition of something as being set aside, or separated, from other things. For example, a Korban is holy because it is set aside to be offered to Hashem. Before building the Mikdash, the Torah lists four items that are used to separate, telling us that we must recognize that certain people, places, and objects are meant to be set aside from others. In order for the Mikdash to function properly, there must be a recognition that some parts of it, such as the Kodesh HaKodashim, are forbidden to enter. In addition, there must be a realization that certain people, such as Kohanim and Leviim, have different roles in the Mikdash. Additionally, it is required that people in the Mikdash respect the vessels by abiding by the rules of what they can touch at what times. Only when there is an understanding of what or who is meant to be set aside can there be a commandment to build the Mikdash.
Although nowadays we do not have a Mikdash or materials to dedicate to it, the message of its construction still is relevant. It was a necessity then to recognize the distinct roles of different places and people in the service of Hashem; the same is true today. Our service of Hashem is not a standard fixed for everyone; rather, it is our role to recognize our own distinct strengths and to use them to perform the will of Hashem.
-Adapted from a Devar Torah by Rav Yosef Adler