On Building, Foundations and Freedom | Parashat Terumah

What is sometimes worse than losing a revolution??? Winning.

The day after the revolution is over we often see revolutionaries demonstrating behavior of great let-down or even depression. The fight is over, the cause has been achieved, and now the really hard work begins. Building. Laying groundwork, creating infrastructure and setting up systems requires an entirely different set of leadership skills than those of a charismatic and passionate revolutionary. What happens when revolutionaries become bureaucrats?  Some fade away unable to recognize the necessity to adapt and alter their focus, and some are able to harness their passion, creativity and vision to create the necessary structure to weather a massive transition and to surround themselves with the right people to take it to the next level.

Modern Israeli history is a classic example with leaders such as Ben Gurion, Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Sharon and Peres (just to name a few) who all transitioned from pre-State times to visionary leaders working to build the fledgling State. We see a not terribly dissimilar process with the Palestinians who are trying to figure out how to transition from insurgency to institution.

As we read parashat Terumah this week, we embark on a five-week journey that is all about one thing: building. It marks a major transition in our story from a familial dynasty in Breishit, to the foundational narrative of liberation and revelation in the beginning of Exodus. Now we are free from slavery, we’ve received Torah at Sinai and for the next five weeks we will be immersed in the building of the Mishkan.

This sedrah begins a series of five parshiyot that are completely focused on this rather simple building – a tent like three-walled structure not unlike a large tent – including all of its relative vestments, garments and ritual items. The great 20th century scholar Yeshayahu Leibovitz makes a fascinating observation of the disproportional relationship between two accounts of building in the Torah. The first is the “building” (or creation) of the world, and the second is the building of the Mishkan. Leibovitz points out that the Torah dedicates a mere 34 verses to the entire story of creation (including the seventh day) and in comparison dedicates a whopping 450 verses to the building of the Mishkan.

What are we to make of this incredible disproportionality? One could glean here that that the Torah is not meant to be given as a lesson in cosmology nor should we as Jews and human beings be terribly focused on how we got here, and how we were created (much to the dismay of the Kabbalists who dedicate considerable emphasis on creation) rather to understand the reason what is demanded of us by our creator. It was the great 19th century American author Mark Twain who wrote that “the two most important days of a person’s life are the day we are born, and second, the day we figure out why.” Creation was indeed important, but now – during this and the next 4 parshayot – we begin to understand our purpose.

The account of the building of the Mishkan, which begins in parshat Terumah and takes us through P’kudei and the end of the book of Exodus is, in my opinion, a wonderful lesson for our modern day Mishkan – the State of Israel. Much has been written about Israel’s creation and inception, yet that’s all happened in the past. The exciting part is how do we harness that spirit of revolution, of creation, of dreams and vision to focus on the minutiae of building a society? We must understand that the State of Israel can serve a similar purpose and function of the Mishkan. It can be the central institution for all “tribes” through which we are unified and in which we find Torah. Similar to the Mishkan, it must be built with contributions from all of the children of Israel – “from every person whose heart so move him/her” (25:2). The only difference today is that we are without a clear instruction manual. We did not receive 450 verses outlining God’s plan given to skilled artists and architects. That means that we are all part of the process of creating our Mishkan, and we must ensure that all of us take part in this sacred endeavor.


About the author: Rabbi Josh Weinberg serves as the Vice President of the URJ for Israel and Reform Zionism and is the Executive Director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York. 


The above previously appeared as #103 in the Torah from Around the World series. 

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