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Parshat Terumah: I Give therefore I Am

Updated: Mar 22

AT the start of the war one day I came home to find that my 7 year old had found a box and spent hours decorating it, writing a message and drawing to send to the soldiers. We made cupcakes together and decorated them put them in her beautiful box and sent it to the soldiers. After we sent it off, she turned to me and said, "Ima it makes me feel so warm inside what we did, I feel in my heart like it’s singing and I feel like I’m close to the chayalim”. When we give we gain. When we invest in something we feel part of something larger than ourselves. One of the greatest human yearning is the need to belong.

The onset of modernity and with it the move from Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (community to society) led to a rapid decline of social institutions such as marriage, family and religious or neighbourhood communities, and with it we lost a natural sense of belonging. The enlightenment and emancipation rightly fought against the coercive institutions and structures that repressed the dignity and autonomy of the individual, but as a result the robust frameworks that nurtured social cohesion were eroded, and once there is a breakdown in the social fabric of society it is very hard to repair. So, individuals who celebrated their new found freedoms, soon began to recognise the unwelcome by-products of this new lifestyle – predominantly - lonliness and loss of meaning. A search began for new means of connection – the internet, Facebook, social media (note the term social), and of course in the late twentieth century, the surge of nationalism and fundamentalism. In fact, the in the last two centuries we have seen a constant oscillation between the human desire for connection and belonging and the need for individual expression. We have moved between radical individualism and radical socialism. The greatest question is can there be a middle ground? Is it possible to find something in-between? A way of living in groups, with shared values, principles, morals and a meta vision for society that creates social cohesion and unity but does not drown out the voice of the individual?

I believe that this is a central question dominating many of the Torah narratives – predominantly in the book of Shemot and Bamidbar; in creating a nation can we also advocate for the individual? Today we have thinkers and sociologists that have coined different terms and theories to describe this idea – Robert Putnam calls it ‘social capital’, Jonathan Haidt calls it ‘moral capital’, Rabbi Sacks calls it ‘the common good’. What characterises all their theories is the mandate of the individual to heed to the call that comes from outside the egoïstic self. To truly belong means to transcend the self; but equally to be truly human means the self must not get lost in the conformity of the mass. It is an exquisitely difficult dance that if done wrong can destroy the very foundation of our humanity. Turning to this week’s Parsha we observe an interesting fact – the juxtaposition of Parshiot Terumah and Tezaveh. Terumah - to donate/give; Tezaveh - to command. They represent two opposing values.

One is the act of giving that is open, unlimited, boundless. The other is the act of command, that is limiting, rigid and involuntary. It is the balance between these two values that dictates the way in which an individual can belong to a larger unit. Any real freedom, any authentic living requires we engage in both. The people of Israel are in transition, moving precariously between slavery and freedom, dependence and independence. In child rearing we navigate the same path channelling our children from dependency to independency in a sometimes difficult and challenging way. Becoming a balanced, well-adjusted adult requires two equal, but opposing elements - freedom and boundaries. The project of the Mishkan (tabernacle) is the vehicle through which this calibrated dance takes place. It channels the people’s unbridled freedom; it allows them to find purpose and meaning outside of the parochial self. It illustrates the important message that real freedom, maturity, and growth comes through marrying passion and structure, creativity, and discipline, giving and receiving. They construct something together with others; a home for God in the midst of the people. This vision places sanctity at the centre of the social matrix and it is constructed through the acts of individual benevolence and generosity that is commanded from above. The other powerful message imparted through the construction of the Mishkan is the notion of invested process. The Israelites are granted silver, gold and wealth as they depart Egypt, their freedom is gifted to them miraculously עזרי מעם ה' and though the people toiled for hundreds of years, their labour was for no end goal; they neither owned nor took pride in their achievements because it was not for a higher purpose. But there is something very human about the act of productivity – we see that when a chasm is created with Moshe’s delayed return the people fill the gap of his presence through productivity. Using the wealth, they procured in Egypt they build a new leader - a golden calf. But very quickly this act of creativity and generosity transforms into a frenzy of idol worship and sexual impropriety. When there is no higher purpose to acts of productivity, when one has not truly invested or understood the value of what they have built, when social cohesion is only a means of fulfilling self-interest it will rapidly lead to self-worship and nihilism. A society of abundance and the coddling of youth ruins the next generation. So much is taken for granted, there is no value placed on anything since there has been no investment towards it.

The Mishkan acts as the counter cultural edifice of the Egel. It 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 are mandated to do it correctly. This time the parent teaches the child that to really truly appreciate the gift, there must investment and appreciation not just productivity. The people must be guided by vision, channelled by commands and structures of discipline. They 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. 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 now rather than what we can give for the future; we plan how to procure 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 same trap again. Exactly a decade ago Ari Shavit wrote a book entitled, My Promised Land. In it he voiced the following concern: “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?”

I believe the answer to Shavit's question was answered on 07/10. What we have witnessed in the last four month is nothing short of miraculous. The bravery, resilience, pride, commitment, and endurance of the Israeli youth is astounding. This generation is building a new Mishkan. They are still committed to the Israel of tomorrow. Despite what seemed like a generation of entitled youth, deep down their convictions and determination was always present. In fact it is them who have taught us exactly what Moshe and God teach the people of Israel in this Parsha - that only when you have worked for, invested in and really aspire to something, you will deeply appreciate it. Perhaps we had started to take our land for granted, we had believed that we were entitled to it. That all changed on Simchat Torah, we were reminded that we must always fight to retain the sanctity of the people, to maintain the unity of purpose and productivity and to know that every person, whatever walk of life they are in must donate what he can to build the home we have together. Only in this way will we 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 ' ושכנתי מקדש לי ועשו בתוכם - You shall make me a sanctuary and in it I shall dwell'. May we once again make Israel a Divine sanctuary for it's people with God dwelling at its center.

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