Terumah 5780 – Build and They Will Come: Some Assembly Required

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In parshah Terumah, God says to Moses,” They shall make for me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them.” On the summit of Mount Sinai, Moses is given detailed instructions on how to construct this dwelling for God so that it could be readily dismantled, transported and reassembled as the people journeyed the desert.

In fact, a sizable portion of the book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the sanctuary built by the children of Israel in the desert. The Torah, which usually is so sparing with words that many of its laws are contained within a single word or letter, is uncharacteristically elaborate. All in all, 13 chapters are devoted to describing how fifteen materials, representing a cross-section of animal, vegetable and mineral resources of the earth, were fashioned into this edifice dedicated to the service of God and the training of the Kohanim who were to officiate there. It is said that the Israelites took some of the materials they used in building the golden calf to now build the Mishkan.

The building of the Mishkan is the Israelites first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the Red Sea, leaving the domain of Egypt and entering their new domain as the people of God. The tabernacle, small and fragile though it was, was an event of huge significance. It brought the divine presence down from heaven to earth.

Some have suggested that the creation of the tabernacle by the Israelites is the counterpart of the creation of the universe by God. Both were acts of self- renunciation, whereby one made space for the other.

The building of the Mishkan will force the Israelites to work together in order to fulfill a common goal and prepare for a common future. The people’s participation in the making of the tabernacle will unify the nation in a different way. It will elevate the seemingly mundane work of construction into a sacred vocation, dedicated to the service of the one God who freed them from Egypt. These former slaves are no strangers to building monuments and cities. The backbreaking labor of the Israelites in Egypt glorified the Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods; but that certainly was not a sacred endeavor. In contrast, constructing the tabernacle and all its finery will be holy work that aims to create sacred space and sacred instruments of worship.  This Mishkan became the model and prototype for all subsequent homes for God constructed on Earth.

According to parshah, the Israelite women and men together provided not only the labor, but also the raw materials for the Mishkan. Their gifts, brought as voluntary offerings, were gathered and transformed into a place for God to reside in their midst. These former slaves now became both the builders of a nation and builders of a dwelling place for the divine. It is the ark and its contents, the symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, that gives meaning to the tabernacle.

God came close to the Israelites through the building of this sanctuary. It wasn’t the quality of the wood and metals and drapes. It wasn’t the glitter of jewels on breastplate of the high priest. It wasn’t the beauty of the architecture. It was the fact that it was built out of the gifts of” everyone whose heart prompts them to give”. Where people give voluntarily to one another and to holy causes, that is where the divine presence rests.

Thus, the special word that gives its name to this week’s parshah:  Terumah. It can be translated as a contribution, but it actually has a subtly different meaning for which there is no simple English equivalent. It means” something you lift up” by dedicating to a sacred cause. You lift it up, then it lifts you up. One of the best ways of elevating our spiritual heights is simply to give in gratitude for the fact that things have been given to us.

Divine presence was not in a building but in its builders, not in a physical place but in the human heart. The sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the ones who worshiped there. God exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of God in the same way. The essence of” the holy” is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain entirely set aside for God. If the concept of the tabernacle is that God lives in the human heart whenever it opens itself unreservedly to heaven, then its physical location is irrelevant. Rabbi Menachem Mendel has said:” God is only where you let God in.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had an interesting take on the building of the Mishkan.  He  wrote about the behavioral economist Dan Ariely who did a series of experiments on what is known as the IKEA effect or” why we overvalue what we make.” The name comes, of course, from the store that sells self- assembly furniture. We may go there to save money on furniture.  However, after we construct something, even if the item is amateurish, we tend to feel a certain pride in it. We can say,” I made this,” even if someone else designed, produced the pieces, and wrote the instructions.  Ariely’s conclusions of his studies were: the effort that we put into something does not change the object. It changes us in the way we evaluate the object. The greater the labor, the greater the love for what we have made. This is part of what is happening in the long sequence about the building of the sanctuary that begins in our parshah. There is certainly no comparison between the Mishkan and something as secular as a piece of self-assembly furniture. But at a human level, there are psychological parallels. The Mishkan was the first thing the Israelites made in the wilderness, and it marks a turning point in the Exodus. Until now, God has done all the work. He took the people out of Egypt to freedom. He gave them food. However, the people did not appreciate it. They were ungrateful. They complained.

Now God instructed Moses to take the people through a role reversal. Instead of God doing things for them, he commanded them to make something for Him. This was not about God. This was about humans and their dignity, their self-respect.

God gave the Israelites a chance to make something with her own hands, something they would value because, collectively, they made it. Everyone who was willing could contribute, from whatever they had. Everyone had the opportunity to take part: women as well as men, the people as a whole, not just the elite.

For the first time, God was asking them not just to follow him or obey his laws but to the active; to become builders and creators. And because it involved their work, energy and time, they invested something of themselves, individually and collectively, in it. To repeat Ariely’s point: we value what we create. The effort we put into something does not change the object, it changes us. God was giving the Israelites the dignity of being able to say:” I helped build a house for God.” The creator of the universe was giving his people the chance to also become creators – not just of something physical and secular, but of something profoundly spiritual and sacred.

This is a life-changing idea. One of the greatest gifts we can give people is to give them a chance to create. This is the one gift that turns a recipient into a giver. It gives them dignity. It shows that we trust them, have faith in them, and believe they are capable of great things.

As Melissa discussed two weeks ago, when you delegate thoughtfully, you turn delegates into partners, not just employees. By sharing the burden and allowing others to take on parts of the job that is their own, they become invested in the outcome. When you delegate correctly, bearing in mind each person’s talents, strengths and personality, you create a stronger team and company. Your goal is to build partners who care about and can contribute to the company’s well-being. Give your employees enough information for them to understand the vision and allow for their input and creativity. Allowing others to share in responsibility and vision includes them as partners.

Remember that God instructed Moses:” tell the Israelites people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart is so moved.” This kind of giving, a free will offering, does not come through guilt, coercion, or competition, but from the deepest recesses of the soul.

One who gives receives something in return – the sense of being generous in making a worthy undertaking possible, the sense of sharing with others in an important venture, the sense of self-worth that comes from knowing that we can give away something of value without feeling diminished.

Today, it is important for all of us to continue to make free will offerings to institutions that unify the Jewish people. Our Torah portion teaches us that the terumah gift is an offering that comes from the deep recesses of the heart.  May we all be lifted up; but, more importantly, may we lift up others.