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The Building Project: Building a Nation, Building a Community, Building Ourselves© Parashat Terumah 2024

Think back to a time when you felt transformed by leadership - something you were in charge of where you led others - what did you do, and how did it change you? 

Now, you might be asking, what does this question have to do with the building of the Tabernacle/mishkan?

Let’s summarize where we’ve been so far in this book. We started in Egypt - going from family to a nation, from slavery to freedom, from freedom to law at Sinai. And now, for the rest of the book, we are going to focus on a construction project. Architects, this is your time.

But I think we can learn something deeper here about the building the mishkan, and the lessons we can learn about leadership and advocacy in our time. 

First, we see something interesting about transformation - it takes a long time. You can take the slave out of Egypt, but it’s harder to take Egypt out of the slaves. 

They tell Moses this after experiencing the miracle of the Sea of Reeds: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Ex. 14:11-12

God and Moses have a problem. 

After crossing the sea the people continue to complain - they had no water, then they had water, but it was bitter, then they didn’t have food, then they complain about the water. Then, within weeks of the revelation at Sinai – where God reveals the Torah – they make a Golden Calf, which many commentators suggests happened before this week’s parashah, because they don’t have their leader Moses with them. 

The slaves are like children totally dependent on others. If all these miracles cannot change their mentality, then what will?!? 

God suggests something completely radical and counter intuitive. What do you do for people who seemingly cannot do anything themselves? Give them a building project. But, what makes this building project unique is you have to build it together. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l teaches the following about this building project and the effect it had on the people:

“It is then (after all these incidences of complaining) that God said: Let them build something together. This simple command transformed the Israelites. During the whole construction of the Tabernacle there were no complaints. The entire people contributed –  some gold, silver, or bronze, some brought skins and drapes, others gave their time and skill. They gave so much that Moses had to order them to stop. A remarkable proposition is being framed here: It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.

So long as every crisis was dealt with by Moses and miracles, the Israelites remained in a state of dependency. Their default response was to complain. In order for them to reach adulthood and responsibility, there had to be a transition from passive recipients of God’s blessings to active creators. The people had to become God’s “partners in the work of creation” (Shabbat 10a). That, I believe, is what the Sages meant when they said, “Call them not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders’” (Brachot 64a). People have to become builders if they are to grow from childhood to adulthood… The building of the Tabernacle was the first great project the Israelites undertook together. It involved their generosity and skill. It gave them the chance to give back to God a little of what He had given them. It conferred on them the dignity of labour and creative endeavour. It brought to closure their birth as a nation and it symbolised the challenge of the future. The society they were summoned to create in the land of Israel would be one in which everyone would play their part.”

We are seeing a version of this today in a sense. An underreported aspect of the October 7th massacres was how Israel responded. 

Polls show that faith in the government, already shaky in this divided country, has collapsed since the attacks on October 7. Protesters say their criticisms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition have been tragically borne out.

Shikma Bressler, a particle physicist who became the face of the demonstrations last year, said, “This government’s inability to give answers and actions that serve the people is what we were protesting against. In the last nine months, we’ve been building all kinds of civil organizations with very good logistical and execution abilities. It was natural we would fill the vacuum left by the government.”

In hours, the protest movement shifted from protesting against democracy to stepping in to fill the void left by the government. This is being called Israel’s “great awakening.” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and former MK, said: “What we are seeing is this huge civic awakening and energy being channeled in what is probably the largest civic support system we’ve ever known.” 

The citizenry of Israel is living up to Zionism’s founder’s words when Theodore Herzl said these words 50 , “Zionism an infinite ideal. It will not cease to be an ideal even after we attain our land, the Land of Israel.  For Zionism encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people, but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.”

This is what democracy looks like. It is ongoing, it is active not passive, and it demands that citizens challenge themselves uttered by President JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

We can take this idea and apply it to any community, especially ours. 

People sometimes ask me what the secret to our success here is at Shaarei Kodesh. How are we able to maintain solid, incremental growth, synagogues are shrinking over this last decade? It must be the building right? Or the beautiful and priceless art work hanging? Obviously, it is none of these things, so why do people keep coming back? 

The things we do here, the little acts like putting the books away, setting up the tables and chairs, praying, putting out the food, helping with a program - that’s the secret sauce. It isn’t the building as a place, but the building we do with our actions day after day, week after week, year after year, and soul after soul that we touch. 

In our parashah, we read this iconic line:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃ 

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8)

You, yes, you, build me a sanctuary, with your hands and with your hearts, because when you do, then I will dwell among you. 

I believe that it isn’t only Israeli Jewry that is waking up to a new reality; I think American Jewry is as well, but not the reality you might think. We are aware of our vulnerability, but I believe that this year will make Jews more aware of their Jewish soul, and they will find community to cultivate that soul. That’s why Shaarei Kodesh is here.

Perhaps the days of the large and impersonal Holy Temples are coming to an end, and the time of the Mishkan, the smaller, less intimidating and accessible where Jews and seekers can build and grow. Rather than creating walls to keep others out, we are expanding the tent to bring others in and saying, we need you to hold on to this tent pole or this stake - we need you, and because of that, you need us. 

It is not what God does for us but what we do for God has been our secret sauce for thousands of years, and this is where that sauce is made, in God’s home. 

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