Parashat Terumah

Using Our Contributions To Create The Sacred

In order to help build sacred space, the act of giving must be accompanied by a heart that reaches out to others.

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"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?

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Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow was ordained at JTS, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She served as the National Program Director of Spark: Partnership for Service, is the American founder of the Bavli-Yerushalmi Project, and worked as a Program Officer/Educator at the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. She is currently the Rabbi/Director of Religious Services at Hebrew SeniorLife, a multi-faceted organization serving seniors in the Boston area.