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According to the effort is the reward – Parshat Terumah 5775

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Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.  Ben Heh Heh would say: According to the effort is the reward. 

(Pirkei Avot 5:22-23)

“…to arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land.”

(Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

On rebuilding shattered lives and appreciating the results of my labour

January 1939:  two young girls arrive at Liverpool street station escaping to England from the Nazi Regime in Germany on the Kinder-transport. Leaving their family behind, Paula aged eleven and Susi aged nine make their way to their ‘adopted’ family in Gateshead.  Knowing neither the language, culture, nor people and being shocked by the primitiveness of England compared to their comfortable life in Germany,  it took them a long time to adapt to their new life and surroundings.  They were of course the lucky ones, especially since in the end both their parents and other siblings managed to escape Nazi Germany. But they did face difficult obstacles, yet despite this they both managed to turn their lives around, building incredible families and a legacy of work on behalf of the Jewish people.  In the face of adversity my grandmother Paula and her sister Susi ז”ל triumphed. There is no doubt in my mind that this ability to build, create and fight with fortitude for a better life, arose from their outlook.  My grandmother always says that you never appreciate anything unless you have had to work for it. She is the most profoundly optimistic and positive person I know.  She tells me that she thanks God every morning and every evening for the blessings in her life.  But that gratitude is not based on a passive attitude that leaves everything to the hand of God.  She worked incredibly hard to get to where she is.  She knew that without investing time, effort, patience and a disciplined work ethic into every aspect of her life, both business and family, there would be no results.  Together with her sister Susi, and their husbands, Zeevז”ל and Freddie ז”ל, they created light out of darkness, hope out of despair, fortune out of misfortune. But they did it slowly and carefully, knowing that nothing comes immediately, and if it does, as my grandmother says, it will not be valued as much.

My children already know this saying of my grandmother’s, they know that if they don’t get the results they want in a test (due to lack of investing time learning) or they expect a project to be finished as soon as it’s started, they will hear the phrase ‘ if you don’t work on it you won’t appreciate it, nothing good comes immediately’.  They know this because I believe their generation is one who is at the greatest risk of forgetting   the legacy of my grandparents generation – that nothing materialises overnight. Anything worthy, authentic and sustainable most often comes through a long, hard and challenging process.

On the chad paami culture of our society

In a month Israelis are going once again to the ballot box. Besides the obvious frustrations and boredom of the election campaigns, the fact that two years on the country is voting again is in itself is a worrying symptom of our times.  We are the generation of ‘chad pami – disposables’, everything from plates to clothes, information to Prime Ministers.  No one has the patience to wait, everyone wants immediate results.  Everything is easily replaced by a better, faster version. Because the pace of development is so fast there is always something new to choose from – the latest phone, car, gizmo, fashion.  We even see it manifest itself in politics –  if we haven’t got what we want immediately from a government, let’s try a new one.  The heightened divorce rates are no surprise in a society that encourages quick, easy results at the expense of a committed and often challenging effort.  There are articles, books and studies, too numerous to count, that are warning parents of today that the way in which they are bringing up their children -solving all their problems, making life as comfortable and easy for them as possible, child friendly food, no household chores or responsibilities, constantly capitulating to every demand,  resisting boundaries and limits on their screen time and behaviour and generally allowing them to be spoilt self centred individuals – is destroying the next generation. We are teaching them that results are immediate if they exert enough pressure, and that challenges are negative.  We are indoctrinating them to believe that the fastest, newest and easiest is the best.  Freedom is having what I want when I want it.  Effort, patience and endurance in the journey of life are just obstacles in my race towards my narcissistic goals.

I have spoken at length throughout my writings about a theme I believe runs through the whole of Torah – the significance of process in the development of mankind and the individual.  As I have discussed above, today more than ever, this message needs to be heard and it is the next few parshiot that we see it arise again.

The opposing element of Terumah- Giving and Tezaveh – Commanding

Parshat Terumah, Tezaveh, Ki Tisa, Vaykhel and Pekudei as well as the first part of Sefer Vayikra describe the construction of the Mishkan – the sanctuary of God, to which the people will bring sacrifices.  It always struck me as a little strange that the narrative detailing the building of the sanctuary, a temporary construct of worship whose lifespan was limited, comprises almost a book and a half of the Torah. Especially when seen in comparison to the creation of the world that comprises just one and half chapters. I always wonder why the Torah relays in painstaking detail every element of the Mishkan construction.  I would like to offer two important messages I believe are inherent in this narrative, and answer perhaps why we must hear about it in so much detail.

The first is already detected in the very names given to the two Parshiot – Terumah and Tezaveh. Terumah – to donate/give; Tezaveh – to command.  They represent two themes that flow through the text, which are in fact opposing elements. One is the act of giving that is open, unlimited, all encompassing.  The other is the act of command, that is limiting, constrictive and compelling.  Any real freedom, any authentic living requires these two elements.  The people of Israel are in transition, moving precariously between slavery and freedom, dependence and independence.  In child rearing we take the same journey, moving our children from total dependency to becoming independent free adults.   The passage is not an easy one to make.  To give people freedom they must be taught the value of that very freedom.  To create a balanced, well adjusted adult requires imbuing a child with two equal but opposing elements – freedom and limitation. There is a fascinating incident later in Sefer Shemot when the people are so enthusiastic in their giving to the tabernacle project that Moshe has to literally command them to ‘stop’.  He has to curb their giving:

Moshe commanded that they proclaim throughout the camp saying ‘man and woman shall not to do more work from the sanctuary’, and the people were restrained from bringing’ . (Shemot 36:6)

There is an almost frenzied-like giving from the people. Their passion for both the construction of the calf  and the sanctuary is peppered with extremity, a type of fundamentalism.  Their freedom is foetal like in its nature, underdeveloped and unrefined.  Their inability to discern limitations is much like a child’s.  The Mishkan project comes to channel the people towards adulthood, to show them that real freedom, maturity and growth comes by marrying passion and structure, creativity and discipline, giving and receiving.[1]  Is the boundless act of giving by the  people only mimicking the acts of God towards his people in allowing them to take all the riches of Egypt and exposing them to all the Divine miracles? Did the people become ‘spoilt’ precipitating a natural response, but one that illustrates a lack of appreciation of the value of the gifts?[2]

The immediacy of the Golden Calf v a labour of love in the construction of the Mishkan

The second message of the text relates to what we discussed above. The people leave Egypt laden with gold, silver and jewellery which they steal from the Egyptians.  Their freedom is not something they had to work for, God’s revelation came in quick and easy channels. Though the people toiled for hundreds of years, their labour was for no end goal; they neither owned nor took pride in their achievements for they did not belong to them.  The people stand at the water’s edge between slavery and freedom and they fail to take any initiative, they cannot fight for themselves, they do not know how to.  They are a nation of slaves, dependent on their masters for instruction, be it the Egyptian taskmaster or God.   When Moshe goes up the mountain and apparently is late upon returning[3], the people demand a new leader.  They cannot be on their own, they do not know how to lead a life of independent means.  The motif of immediacy v process rears its head again.  They cannot wait, they need a new leader now.  They run to Aaron in a panic:

א וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ.

And the people saw that Moshe tarried in coming down the mountain and they gathered upon Aaron saying ‘Rise up and make for us a god/leader that will lead us, because this man Moshe that took  us out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him. (Shemot 32:1)

Using the very gifts God gave them, the gold and silver of the Egyptians, they build a new leader, a golden calf. The limitless giving of God to the people, the possessions attained through quick easy methods means nothing to the people.  There is no comprehension of their worth, because they never had to invest in trying to earn them.  In the same way today we are at risk of ruining our children by giving in to their every desire. God in a sense ruins the people by creating a reality where every need is attended to immediately, every aspect of their existence is catered for.  The midrash in commentating on the sin of the Golden Calf portrays this idea in a powerful analogy:

Why Hashem does your anger flare up against your people that you have brought forth our of the land of Egypt? (32:11) Why did Moshe (in the course of his plea) see fit to mention the going out of Egypt? Because Moshe was pleading: Master of the universe, whence did you bring them? Was to not out of Egypt, where they worship calves? The aptness of Moshe pleas will be understood, said R.Huna in the name of R.Yohanan, by the parable of a sage who opened a perfume shop for his son in the street of harlots.  The street plied its trade, the perfume business plied its trade, and the lad like any young males, plied his inclination – he strayed into deprived ways.  When the father came and caught him with a harlot, he began to shout, ‘I’ll kill you’, But the sages friend was there and he spoke up. ‘you yourself ruined your son, and now you are yelling at him! You ignored all other occupations and taught him to be a perfumer; you ignored all other streets and deliberately opened a shop for him in  the street of the harlots’.  (Shemot Rabbah 43:7)

The Midrash here is replete with vivid imagery and subversive messages.  The guilt of the parent in the actions of the child, the ‘spoilt child’ syndrome, the inability of the child to curb his immediate urges and desires – all these themes weave themselves together to create a very definitive message on the part of the Midrashic authors.  Though the people were suspect in the act of the golden calf, we must look beyond them and understand the mindset from which this act arose.  As we already mentioned the golden calf is not born in a vacuum, it is rather a result of a defective vision of reality widespread among the slave nation that freedom means the immediate fulfilment of my desires.   In Hoshea through a disturbing analogy acted out by the prophet, we are told that it was the very gold, silver and abundant gifts given to the people that caused their rebellion against God:

For she did not realise it was I that gave her the grain and wine and the oil, I lavished silver and gold upon her and instead she used it for the Baal. (Hoshea 2:10)

Using the very ‘gift’ of her lovers devotion, the wife (Israel) goes to gratify her own desires and impulses.  Any recipient who received something without having invested in it, will be quick to give it up for something seemingly better.

Consistent with this theme we find that Aaron’s description of the golden calf incident contrasts deeply with the Torah’s  account.  In the Torah’s account we are told:

ג וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן.  ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ (Shemot 32:3)

In Aarons account we are told:

כג וַיֹּאמְרוּ לִי–עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים, אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ:  כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֹא יָדַעְנוּ, מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.  כד וָאֹמַר לָהֶם לְמִי זָהָב, הִתְפָּרָקוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ-לִי; וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה

23 So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. 24 And I said unto them: Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off; so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.’ (Shemot 32:22)

The main difference between the two accounts is found in the moment of creating the calf.  Whilst the Torah portrays a calculated decision on the part of Aaron and the people, a laborious crafting of the calf, Aaron imagines the calf coming almost magically from the fire.  Aaron’s account is a decisive metaphorical reading of the event. There is a deep antipathy towards God and Moshe that is born perhaps from the erroneous ‘child rearing’ that has resulted unsurprisingly in the child’s/people’s inability to ‘delay’ their fear or needs.  Fire requires no process, no patience, no real exertion. It is immediate, all powerful and easily created.  From the fire arose the calf- immediately, instantly the calf emerged quenching the people’s demands without testing their patience.

The Sanctuary comes as a counter-narrative to the golden calf. Even if like Ramban, we do not agree with Rashi’s reading that Terumah and Tezaveh come chronologically after the calf incident in Ki Tisa, we must admit that the connection between the two is clear.  The Mishkan is everything the Egel is not, and at the same time everything it is. It is also about giving, togetherness, unity, creation, leadership and people-hood.  But this time they have to do it right. This time the parent teaches the child that to really truly appreciate the gift, he must invest of himself in the project.  He must overcome challenges, be guided by a vision, be channelled by commands and structures of discipline. The child must learn the art of sustained effort, appreciate stages in development of an idea, recognise the structuring of parts towards the whole.  Like the child, the people must know how to climb the mountain but appreciate the scenery, have their eyes fixed on the ideal construct, a home for God, but work tirelessly in the real world of stone and mortar, bricks and nails, wood and material. They learn through the construction of the Mishkan that only a project that they have personally invested in, is a project whose result will house the Divine spirit.

The generation that came from the gates of hell and built up the land, knew that nothing came without a determined and consistent effort. Every stage was a gift, every small success a triumph. They did not feel that anything was מגיע לי – entitled to them, rather that they needed to work for it and even then it was a privilege. The listing of each stage of the construction of the sanctuary, the painstaking details of each construct, the tension between giving and refraining, is all part of the educational development of the slave nation that echoes to us today thousands of years later.  Though we are no longer slaves in the physical sense, we have much that we are enslaved to, in particular the mindset of entitlement and the world of the instant. We believe that we have rights and freedoms but not necessarily work and responsibilities. We are guided by what we can get not what can give, how we can achieve  the greatest output with the least input.  These are symptoms of an ailing society, they are the warning signs that will lead to another golden calf, we need to act swiftly and decidedly if we are to prevent the next generation from falling into that very trap again.

At the end of Ari Shavit’s book The Promised Land, he asks the following menacing question:

Facing the mythological tank, I think of the mental challenge facing Israel in the twenty first century.  What enabled the defenders of Degania to fend off the Syrian army at such human cost was the conviction they had.  The dream of Utopia and the burgeoning reality of the commune gave them the mental strength to withstand challenges such as the war of 1948.  But contemporary Israel has no utopia and no commune and only a semblance of the resolve and commitment it once had.  Can we survive here without them?  Can we still fight for our banal Israel as the soldiers of Degania fought for their Kibbutz dream? Can our consumerist democracy hold in times of real hardship? Within the Islamic-threat circle and the Arab-threat circle and the Palestinian-challenge circle and the internal-threat circle lies the fifth threat of the mental challenge.  Might it be that Israel’s collective psyche is no longer suited to Israel’s tragic circumstances? (Ari Shavit: My Promised Land p403)   

I believe the answer to Shavit’s question is that yes, we can. Last summer showed us that the youth of today are still committed to the Israel of tomorrow.  That despite their often entitled attitude, deep down their convictions and determination are still driving them.   We must expose our children to the legacy of their great-grandparents, whose lives were a testimony to the indelible spirit of committed perseverance and endurance in the journey to any dream.  It is our duty to teach them the message exposed in the Parsha over the next few weeks that only when you have worked for, invested in and really aspire to something, you will deeply appreciate it.  In this way we will enable our children and our children’s children to create a world in which God’s presence is felt as He commands us time and again ‘ ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – You shall make me a sanctuary and in it I shall dwell’.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The word chessed – the act of giving is also the word used for acts of promiscuity. Hence giving too much also has negative consequences.

[2] This is seen perhaps in the readiness to give up their material wealth for the Golden Calf, as well as their continued complaints about God disappearing and lack of food/water, that exposes an apparent amnesia to the continued open Divine countenance.

[3] There is a great emphasis in the Rabbinic commentary on the ‘lateness’ in Moshe returning. Rashi commentary details at length calculations as to how late Moshe actually was and why the people got their calculations wrong.  The Midrashic literature is full of  various interpretations as to why the people imagined this delay.  The ‘delay’, though conceived as such by the people, according to the commentary was in fact not a delay at all.  All this shows us that the people’s patience was very thin.  Their inability to wait even an hour longer than promised reminds us of an inpatient child whose perception of time and reality is distorted and who lacks any ability to make an informed calculated decisions in a moment of crisis.

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