Weekly Torah Commentary — Terumah February 20, 2015

Exodus 25:1-27:19

Beginning with this week’s Torah reading, we have a series of five portions which focus on the building of Tabernacle, the portable, tent-like structure which was the first house of worship for the children of Israel.  The details are so exhaustive that the narrative fills nearly the whole of the last third of the book of Exodus.  Why in the world do we have such detail when the Tabernacle was only a temporary home for the presence of the Holy One.

Besides, why is the construction of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus at all? It would seem more likely to be found in Leviticus which outlines, also in exhaustive detail, the services to be held and the sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle.  Exodus is about the transition of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom, climaxing in the covenant made on Mt. Sinai between the God of Israel and His people.  Why detail the Tabernacle at this point?

To come to an answer, we need to review the history of Israelites since their departure from Egypt.  It has been one long series of complaints.  Remember their reaction when Moses first approached Pharaoh? The Egyptian ruler made their work even harder and they railed against Moses.  Then, at the Red Sea, they accused Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex. 14:11-12).

Even after the miracle of the parting of the Sea, complaints continued. First they complained about the lack of water, then that the water was bitter, then about the manna, then about the lack of water again. To top it all off, right after the revelation at Sinai, they made a golden calf. If such an amazing series of miracles didn’t cure them of their complaining, what will?

God alone knew the remedy.  He said: Let them build something together. This simple command transformed a nation of complainers. During the entire construction of the tabernacle not one complaint is recorded. The people contributed abundantly and willingly, some gold, some silver, some bronze, some animal skins and drapes. Others freely donated their time and skill. They contributed so much that Moses had to order them to stop.

What does this say to us?  It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.

Think about it: as long as every crisis they encountered was handled by Moses and miracles, the children of Israel remained in the mindset of slaves: dependency and no personal sense of responsibility. The result was complaining. For them to grow into responsibility, their mindset needed a radical transformation.  They needed to transition from dependence on God, Moses and miracles to assuming the responsibility to co-create with God.  They needed to become His partners.  Remember how many times the Torah records, “If you will…. I will….”?

The Torah is God’s call to responsibility, to the unique privilege of working with Him. It beckons us to leave childish attitudes behind and to assume responsibility to discover the gifts with which each of us is endowed and then use those gifts and talents to make the knowledge of Him known in this world.

It is easy to live a life of dependency that allows for laziness and apathy. It is equally easy to make the mistake of saying “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17). The Torah’s view is to achieve the balance between those two extremes which gave rise to the saying, Work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.

The building of the Tabernacle was Israel’s first great national project. It required selflessness in the form of generosity and skill.  It taught them the dignity of labor and creative endeavor, as opposed to the harshness of labor under slavery. It symbolized the challenge of their future: to create in the land of Israel a community in which everyone would have their part to play.

From this we can derive the fundamental difference between a ‘state’ and a ‘society.’

The ‘state’ represents what is done for us through the workings of government. ‘Society’ is what we do for one another through communities, non-profit organizations and personal kindnesses.

The Torah indicates a clear preference for ‘society’ as pre-eminent over ‘state’ in creating a just and righteous nation because it is how we treat each other, what we do for one another that transforms us, not what the government does for us.  To paraphrase that politically, we could say that the Torah encourages big society and small government.

The greatest leaders of history have not done all the work on behalf of the people. They have taught the people how to do the work themselves.

In Tune with Torah this week = our responsibility is two-fold: to be ever grateful and aware of all the goodness and blessings God has given us; but to equally understand and implement the truth that every gift, every talent, every blessing we receive is our opportunity to give back to Him through service to others.  The happiest people on earth are not those who ‘get’ but those who live a life of giving.

Shabbat Shalom!

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