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On Being Part of A Whole – Parshat Terumah 5774

To read the printable PDF click here: Parshat Teruma – On Being Part of a Whole

Individualism v Collectivism:

I would like to begin this week by making two observations. The first is from personal experience of parenting whilst the second is a universal look at recent history. Through each of these, the significance of this week’s parsha is understood.

I recently completed a parenting course under the auspices of a group called Shefer.  Like any parenting philosophy it has its positives and negatives with elements to be embraced and elements to leave to the side.  There is one tenet of the Shefer theory however, that I found to be very helpful and changed the way I looked at the role of children in the family.  The understanding is that our children connect to us in many ways, some that are positive and others that are unbeneficial.  What shefer proposes is that every child wants to feel ‘part’ of the family.  How do we make children feel a part of a family? Classic answers include spending quality time with them, having family interactions and special times such as family meals for example.  The Shefer philosophy however, is that in order for a child to feel he ‘belongs’ he must play a significant role in the day to day running of the home.  By giving the child responsibility for chores and tasks (age and personality appropriate) we are teaching our child that the ‘I’ and his needs are not the only thing that endows him with value.  Rather what a child can do and give to ‘others’ is where ones ‘I’ becomes meaningful and connected to the family unit.

The second observation comes from looking at our very recent history. We have been exposed to many regimes that have relentlessly endeavoured to suppress the individual in all his unique glory. Communism, Socialism and Fascism each in their own way have come to preach the unity of the whole. The end goal and their ultimate mission for mankind is to create together a greater reality.  In pursuing this goal what is lost is the essence of the individual, mans choice to live as he wishes together with his hopes, dreams, aspirations and fulfilment of self.  Today perhaps as a response to the above or possibly in light of world globalisation, be it economically, technologically or philosophically, we are living in an age of renewed individualism.   The consequence of which is sadly an absolving of any collective responsibility or duty.

I want to suggest that Parshat Terumah addresses the two issues above.  It is a narrative about individuals and their collective call.  It is a narrative that stresses the ‘whole’ but simultaneously makes space for the individual.  It is the logical step in the history of an enslaved people who have been set free, as we shall see.

The Torah through various narratives, addresses the tension that exists between individualism and nationalism and exposes the dangers of them being taken to the extreme.  The story of the Tower of Bavel is replete with implicit references to the danger of שפה אחד ודברים אחדים – ‘one language and things the same’. To appreciate the depth of this message a rich analysis of the text is required. This is beyond our scope but suffice to say that when a group negates the rights, diversity of opinions and uniqueness of the individual, the results are fatal.[1]  Maybe it is best summarised by John Stewart Mill, the nineteenth century British political philosopher, in his famous essay on Liberty:

“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities.  But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over  the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.  Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation,  of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”[2]

Another example in the Torah of this tension is seen at the start of Shemot, where a systemized suppression of the individual occurs.  After chapter 1 that records the names and lineage of the Hebrews, we are thrown into a world of anonymity. Chapter 2 portrays a regime whose very aim was to rid man of his identity, to make him reach the point of despair and to deprive his name of value. There are no names given and Paroah has seemingly succeeded in his goal.  That is until the nameless women, through their unique acts of courage defy the anonymity they have been fated.[3]   Here individualism trumps the oppressiveness of a tyrannical regime.   Here we begin to see a new paradigm.  There is neither strict individualism nor absolute collectivism.  Here we witness individuals, in all their creative uniqueness working for the good of the whole. Here individuals are seeking their personal identity within and for the sake of the collective.

In the Bavel narrative there is a definite subtle polemic against collectivism and its inherent dangers.   In fact the whole of Sefer bereshit emphasises the importance of the individual, the imperative of non conformity and the significance of following one’s own path.  And yet we arrive at Har Sinai, stand at the mountain and declare יחד (together) that we will receive the Torah.  Our unity, conformity and acceptance of principles laid down by an authoritarian God is praised.[4]  In many ways standing at the foot of Sinai our individuality is reduced to its minimal faculty and we are nothing but a fraction of a larger whole.

What then is the Torah approach to individualism and nationalism?  The answer is of course multifaceted and requires a broad discussion and extensive study of many texts which is beyond our scope.[5] However Parashat Terumah, offers one answer that is both profound and relevant.

The danger inherent in freedom:

The people have just been released from an oppressive existence of slavery. There is a very real danger that the extreme suppression of the individual will be followed by a revival of extreme individualism and with it the destruction of any obedience and duty to the other.  One only need look at European history in the last 300 years to prove this point.  After hundreds of years of oppressive absolute monarchy and church rule, the French revolution called for liberty, equality and fraternity.  It was successful for a time but eventually instead of individuality there was individualism,[6] instead of individuals working together for the betterment of society there were individuals working only for the betterment of self and consequentially society comes crashing down.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elucidates in his book the Politics of Hope; history became a counter-biblical case in point.

‘The individual is no longer defined in and through society, but over and against it.  Roles become masks, hiding rather than revealing the true self beneath.  Conventions become inhibitions, no longer the precondition of individuality but rather of its suppression.  Slowly-the process takes several centuries- the biblical narrative becomes reversed.  Instead of it being ‘not good for man to be alone’ it becomes his essential dignity’. [7]

In the history of mankind after oppressive conformity comes intense individuality. This same danger applied to the Israelite slaves.  Having suddenly been endowed with freedom there is a significant threat of extreme individualism with each person caring only for themselves and their own needs.  And hence this is the vital period to ensure such a thing does not occur. How so?  By teaching the people the importance of a shared goal, collective responsibility and accountable individuality.  The goal – To create a tabernacle for God’s presence; the responsibility – to donate to the project; the accountable individuality – that each person , in their own unique way, contributes to the mission.

The Mission of Parshat Terumah:

In last week’s parsha we touched on the significance of the covenantal ceremony that took place in chapter 24.  I would like to look at it again, focusing specifically on the language employed by the Torah:

וְאֶל-מֹשֶׁה אָמַר עֲלֵה אֶל-ה, אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא, וְשִׁבְעִים, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, מֵרָחֹק.  ב וְנִגַּשׁ מֹשֶׁה לְבַדּוֹ אֶל-ה, וְהֵם לֹא יִגָּשׁוּ; וְהָעָם, לֹא יַעֲלוּ עִמּוֹ.  ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה, וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי ה, וְאֵת, כָּל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וַיַּעַן כָּל-הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד, וַיֹּאמְרו, כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה, נַעֲשֶׂה.  ד וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי ה, וַיַּשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ תַּחַת הָהָר; וּשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה מַצֵּבָה, לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  ה וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֶת-נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיַּעֲלוּ, עֹלֹת; וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים, לה–פָּרִים.  ו וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה חֲצִי הַדָּם, וַיָּשֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹת; וַחֲצִי הַדָּם, זָרַק עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.  ז וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.  ח וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַדָּם, וַיִּזְרֹק עַל-הָעָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה דַם-הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת ה עִמָּכֶם, עַל כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים, הָאֵלֶּה.  ט וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן–נָדָב, וַאֲבִיהוּא, וְשִׁבְעִים, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.  יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹקים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ

And unto Moses He said: ‘Come up unto the LORD, thou, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship ye afar off; 2 and Moses alone shall come near unto the LORD; but they shall not come near; neither shall the people go up with him.’ 3 And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said: ‘All the words which the LORD hath spoken will we do.’ 4 And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen unto the LORD. 6 And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.’ 8 And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said: ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you in agreement with all these words.’ 9 Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. 11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.

When looking at this short narrative what strikes the reader is the repetitive word כל (all) which comes up 7 times.  Coupled with the words קול אחד (one voice) the text is imparting an important message.  In accepting the Torah, God’s mission, the people must respond with one voice, everyone together in unanimous acceptance.   Here there is a unity that incorporates and enriches individuality. The people are ready to learn the essence of community, to understand its significance and how it must be manifested.[8]

So we have right at the start of this week’s parsha (Chapter 25), immediately following on from the above narrative, God’s command to the people – “He whose heart desires should bring a Terumah” – a donation for the construction of the Mishkan.

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה:  מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.

1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart make him willing you shall take My offering.

The people have reached a point of unity, or togetherness.  It is precisely at this moment God commands them to build something together.  They need to act upon their unity but in a positive way that does not undermine their individuality.  Like the philosophy of the parenting course I went on, there is a deep understanding that by ‘giving’ and ‘doing’ the people will begin to feel a secure sense of ‘belonging’.

The Keruvim as separate but united entities:

Another point of imagery in this week’s reading offers a profound message along the same lines:

  יח וְעָשִׂיתָ שְׁנַיִם כְּרֻבִים, זָהָב; מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם, מִשְּׁנֵי קְצוֹת הַכַּפֹּרֶת.  יט וַעֲשֵׂה כְּרוּב אֶחָד מִקָּצָה, מִזֶּה, וּכְרוּב-אֶחָד מִקָּצָה, מִזֶּה; מִן-הַכַּפֹּרֶת תַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-הַכְּרֻבִים, עַל-שְׁנֵי קְצוֹתָיו.  כ וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה, סֹכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת, וּפְנֵיהֶם, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו; אֶל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת–יִהְיוּ, פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים.  כא וְנָתַתָּ אֶת-הַכַּפֹּרֶת עַל-הָאָרֹן, מִלְמָעְלָה; וְאֶל-הָאָרֹן–תִּתֵּן אֶת-הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ.  כב וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

18 And thou shall make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shall thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. 19 And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover shall ye make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. 20 And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And thou shall put the ark-cover above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shall put the testimony that I shall give thee. 22 And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel. (chapter25)

At the heart of the ark stand two cherubs[9].  Facing each other yet with their wings just touching, from between which, God speaks.  This in my mind offers an added dimension to our discussion.  Here stand two separate entities both created from one chunk of gold, whose faces reflect the face of the other, whilst simultaneously looking down at the ark and whose wings house the Godliness that descends from above.  Through the embrace of the other and the unity of the individual, God reveals himself.  Looking at each other, recognising the essence and responsibility to the ‘other’, yet at the same moment contemplating the Divinely sanctioned purpose of man as manifested in their gaze towards the Ark. The Gemara in Baba Batra 99a explains how they stood:

“How did they stand? — R. Johanan and R. Eleazar [are in dispute on the matter]. One Says: They faced each other; and the other says: Their faces were inward. But according to him who says that they faced each other, [it may be asked]: Is it not written, And their faces were inward? [This is] no difficulty: The former[was] at a time when Israel obeyed the will of the Omnipresent; the latter [was] at a time when Israel did not obey the will of the Omnipresent.”

In other words the Gemara is telling us that when the people of Israel were fulfilling their collective mission, there was a respect and enrichment of the individual -standing face to face – the Divine presence between them.  When they focused on their individualism and not their individuality, when they lacked responsibility one for the other and instead ran only ‘each man to his own house’,[10]  that is when the Divine presence would depart from amongst the people.

Parshat Terumah contains a message whose imperative is crucial to our generation. Whilst one cannot deny the importance of individuality, it too has ominous consequences. It must be balanced with a sense of responsibility to the other, to the community and the nation, not at the expense of self, but precisely to enrich it.

In our recent history (commemorated this very week) we tragically also saw a people reduced to mere numbers, dehumanised beyond imagination, their individuality and nationality ripped away from them.  One could imagine that the natural consequence of such an experience would lead the survivors to extreme individualism, a call to focus on oneself and one’s own survival and happiness, yet the very opposite took place.  As Emil Fackenheim, the eminent Post-Holocaust thinker points out – the people themselves defied all rationality in the reaction to their suffering.  The response was that all Jews joined together under a common goal of unity and defiance. He writes:

” while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world-rich and poor, learned and ignorant, religious and non-religious-had to some degree been responding all along(….)Jews responded with an unexpected will to live-with, under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival. In groping for authentic responses to our present Jewish crisis, we do well to begin with responses which have already occurred.  I believe there are two such responses a) commitment to Jewish survival b) Commitment to Jewish unity”.[11]

Following on from the greatest tragedy and trauma of Jewish history, the people, as if having heard the Divine mandate, reacted by ‘building’ a state, selflessly and tirelessly working for the betterment of society, their people, their nation.   The state of Israel today in many ways echoes what we see in Parshat Terumah, a people giving from their heart in order to build a sanctuary.  In that time, the ‘Sanctuary-Tabernacle’ was for man to bring God down to earth; today the Jews find ‘sanctuary’  in the building project of The State of Israel.  Our prayer should be that the message of the Mishkan will resonate to our generation and like the people then, we too should create a place where God can dwell ‘בתוכם’ both amongst us collectively and within us individually.

“ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – You shall make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell amongst/within you”.


[1] See the Netziv (Haemek Hadavar), Leon Kass: The beginning of wisdom, and Judy Klitsner: Subversive Sequels in the Bible,  on the Bavel narrative.  Each writer addresses the danger in suppressing the individual and not allowing for a diversity of opinions.

[2] John Stewart Mill: On Liberty

[3] Chapter 2 has no names, everyone is named in relation to someone else ‘His  sister, The daughter of Paroah’ etc Only at the very end is Moshe given a name by Bat Paroah.

[4] Rashi on Shemot 19:2 ‘as one man with one heart’.

[5] As we saw the women in Shemot offers one approach – the individual worming for the sake of the collective.

[6] There is a difference between individuality and individualism.  The first implies man’s uniqueness and difference to the other, the second, as coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century is when man severs his ties to his community and society, negating any responsibility and lives a parochial existence of the ‘individual’.

[7] Jonathan Sacks: The Politics of Hope p85

[8] Also note that only Moshe when he goes up the mountain goes up ‘alone’. I am indebted to Maayan Dichter for pointing this out in our weekly Matmidot meeting at Matan

[9] Great debate as to what they looked like and the significance of their form. Rashi’s opinion is that they had the faces of a child, Talmud Yoma perceives them as man and women/husband and wife, Rambam sees them as a type of angelic image that parallel’s the angels in heaven.  In all opinions , it is clear that they have some type of human face/form

[10] See Chagai 1:10, a criticism to the people for not rebuilding the Temple, and instead occupying themselves each with their own needs: ‘Because of My house that lies in ruins, while you run every man to his own house.’

[11] Emil Fackenheim: The Jewish Return into History p28

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