Parshat Tetzaveh: Giving the everyman – and woman – a chance to contribute

In my comments on Parshat Terumah last week, I argued that only a real man, an “ish” who had served in the military was allowed to participate in the campaign to provide materials for the construction and furnishings of the Mishkan. How only those who understand the meaning of shared effort and responsibility would be inclined to undertake such a project for which no single individual is given credit.

The opening of Parhat Tetzaveh reinforces my argument while opening up the possibility of a somewhat adjusted slant on the uniqueness of the Terumah.

Both parshiot open with a call for contributions to the Tabernacle. Yet, the approach and phrasing of these respective calls for donations could not be more radically different, as are the nature of the donations being requested.

Terumah calls for capital investment, for the durable goods and materials that have a permanent place as part of the Mishkan structure. Tetzaveh’s call is for ongoing expenditures, i.e. operating costs; for the oil needed to light the menorah on a daily basis. The difference is like that between donating a hospital wing and donating disposable medical supplies, between funding a university building or paying for textbooks and scholarships.

Terumah begins with G-d dictating to Moses what he should say with the classic:

וידבר ה אל משה לאמר: דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי

And God spoke to Moses thus: Tell the Israelites to bring me  a Terumah; from each ‘ish’ whose heart prompts
you shall take my Terumah
(Exodus 25:1-2)


Tetzaveh opens with:

ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ןיקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד

Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for lighting to raise an eternal flame (Exodus 27:20)

Oddly, in Terumah God insists on being quoted verbatim yet the request is phrased as a suggestion. In Tetzaveh Moses can choose his own wording yet the request should be made in the form of an imperative. What’s more, in Terumah God asks that the donation be taken “to Me”. By contrast, in Tetzaveh the donations of oil are to be take “to you” (i.e. Moses).

I believe these distinctions relate directly to the differences between the quality of the two donor groups and the nature of the donated goods.

In Terumah the donors are august warriors, real leaders — only they would be allowed to contribute to the construction project. Such men have achieved a level of awareness and confidence that enables them hear and respond to a request from God Himself.

In Tetzaveh the contributing of oil is open to everyone including army shirkers, women, children, even rabbis. Such people are not on a level where they hear God directly. They need an interlocutor, an intermediary. They will obey Moses more readily than they can obey God. Hence it is to Moses that they must bring the oil not “to Me/ God”

Indeed it is odd that the first two verses of Tetzaveh were not included in Parshat Terumah. These two verses are orphans here. They belong to the previous chapter (27) which is all about contributions to the Mishkan, and not to chapter 28 which starts in the third verse of the Parsha and is all about the designation of Aaron and his progeny as a priestly caste.

Can it be that this truncation is deliberate? That it is meant to underscore the vast difference between the high standing in God’s eyes enjoyed by the contributors in Terumah as opposed to the low standing of the hoi polloi who are commanded to donate oil in Tetzaveh?

At the same time it might be worth pointing out something else. Clearly, the donors of Terumah are the high and the mighty, while those of Tetzaveh are the unwashed masses. But the Torah understands that the high and the mighty have a weakness as well. They are more inclined toward philanthropy than charity. They much prefer to donate bricks and mortar than to fund ongoing expenditures. And for this they expect recognition and honor. After all, one can only engrave a lintel, or mount a plaque, on a physical structure. By contrast, olive oil, like scholarships, is ephemeral. Its very nature is to evaporate, even though without it there can be no light, indeed no eternal light. Yet it lacks the visibility and permanence of structures, wings, rooms, altars; the very things that appeal to big money precisely because they can yield such fame and pride.

Perhaps it is for this very reason that the Terumah is phrased as a singular gift despite the myriad men who make it possible. In this way no one can take credit for his piece of the Mishkan edifice. There can be no plaques, no monuments, no inscriptions because no single donor can point to any particular piece of the Mishkan and thump his chest. Yes, it takes mighty men, genuine “ish” types to bring the Tabernacle to life. But this time at least they have to thwart their lust for encomiums and recognition as they subsume their generosity into a single whole –Terumah – with that of so many of their august peers.