Commentary on Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1 - 27:19
Provided by SocialAction.com, an online Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)…And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus, 25:1, 2,8)
The Israelite people is commanded to build a sanctuary (mishkan) for God. God gives Moses this command during the period of forty days that Moses is on the mountain top. Simultaneously, the people, waiting for his return, lose hope and go to Aaron, his brother and the High Priest, for reassurance.
The Golden Calf
While Moses is receiving the command to collect materials from the people for the building of the Mishkan and the detailed plan for the Mishkan, Aaron aids the people in circumventing this process. He collects gold from the people for the building of the Golden Calf. The people willingly give up their gold for the calf and then worship before it. There are no values or commitments connected with this worship. They worship their own gold in the form of an idol — an egocentric and self-indulgent act. The people later flock to give the requested supplies for the building of the Mishkan, which will house the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written — including the commandment against idolatry.
In both cases the people give willingly. In the case of the Golden Calf, Aaron takes their gold and casts it into a Golden Calf; in the case of the Mishkan, all the skilled artisans among the people are called forth to do the work of building. The Mishkan will serve as a reminder and a physical presence for a God who has communicated a vast code of ethics and behavioral norms. The building of the Mishkan is an effort by people to reach beyond themselves toward communal good.
The Mishkan is built from our free will offerings and the labor of our hands. This is our creation story, in which we imitate God’s creation of the world and create a vessel for the presence of God in our midst. The function of the Mishkan is to make tangible God’s presence in the camp of Israel such that people can direct themselves, their actions and their hearts, toward the contents of the ark, the Ten Commandments. This building is a communal effort to create a spiritual and moral environment.
And yet the people also rallied to give their gold to build the Golden Calf, and their time to worship it. How do we know the difference in our lives between the times when we are creating our own idols and those when we are truly making space the sacred, fulfilling a moral and ethical tradition?
One of the ways we create a moral and spiritual environment is by volunteering our own time to come to the aid of other people, and to work for wider social change. We learn from these two experiences of the Israelite nation that the act of giving is not inherently good.
The root of the word yidvenu is nadav, to volunteer; a literal translation of the phrase in Exodus 25:1 might yield “from every person according to the volunteering of his heart,” or “according to the generous nature of his heart.” The act of giving must be accompanied by a “volunteering heart,” a heart that is reaching out to serve the other.
We can understand the phrase, “volunteering heart,” to mean one who invests their time and energy in trying to understand and relate to the other person or people in need. When we act toward others with generosity of spirit, we create a place in our lives which is a mishkan, a place where God dwells with us.
Sforno, a 15th-century Italian commentator, writes about this verse that no items of monetary value could be given, but rather items that would themselves be used for the work of building the sanctuary. The Israelites did not contribute money; instead, they brought the thirteen materials actually needed for the building project and its accoutrements: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones.
Such is the case with community service: we must understand and be involved with those we are serving in such a way that we bring what is most needed and join together in the project of meeting communal needs. If we approach service like we came to the project of the Golden Calf, we will risk only furthering our own needs, giving our money and time for our own well being. With a “volunteering heart” and a true effort to reach beyond our selves, we create a true sanctuary for bringing God’s presence into our lives.