Jews and anti-Semites alike try – in their different ways – to explain the disproportionate Jewish contribution to science and medicine, the arts and popular culture, academia, entrepreneurship, invention, philanthropy and so forth. Similar quests focus on the phenomenal success of the Jewish State, and the miraculous regeneration of the Haredi world after its near-annihilation in World War II.
An improbably fruitful starting point for understanding the Jewish success story is this week’s parsha, Terumah.
Last week’s parsha, Mishpatim, focused on ‘social’ laws such as the treatment of slaves, male-female relations, lending and borrowing, and damages. These laws are compulsory. We are not at liberty to declare that we that we prefer theft, bribery and extortion as a way of life (political leaders excluded, of course…).
This week’s parsha opens with an extraordinary about-face. In preparation for building the Mishkan, the Ark of the Tabernacle, God instructs Moses to take a contribution from every person whose heart moves him to give:
Exodus 25:1 The Lord said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from every person whose heart moves him to give you shall receive the offering for me
This dramatic shift is typically seen as a movement from the obligatory to the voluntary. I see it rather as a movement from external to internal pressure, that is, from what we do because other people force us, to what we do because we force ourselves.
This idea is captured in the Hebrew words ish asher yidvenu libo, ‘the person whose heart moves him’. Contributions to the Mishkan should be made not by people who feel inclined, want, even deeply desire to give, but rather by people who feels compelled. These two types of giving are worlds apart.
This week’s parsha and upcoming parshiot paint a clearer picture of what it means to feel moved by your heart to contribute.
As we saw above, the urge to contribute is not universal. If everyone had it, God wouldn’t specify that contributions must be made by people who feel driven by their hearts to make them.
As we learn in a forthcoming parsha, it transcends gender – men and women alike feel compelled to contribute:
Exodus 35:29 All the Israelite men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a donation to the Lord.
Contributors are not singled out or accorded special status. The names of the chief architect and his assistant are recorded, but not the names of the names of the donors.
Contributors are not rewarded for giving – there’s no premium service, special discounts, upgrades, points, or member’s lounge. The Mishkan functions for rich and poor alike, conditional only on the token registration fee of a half shekel:
Exodus 30:14 Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the Lord to make atonement for your lives. 16 You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the Lord it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives.
The urge to contribute is not unique or even unusual. So many people brought gifts that the artisans were forced to tell Moses to halt the donations – there was enough already:
Exodus 36:2 They still kept bringing him donations every morning, 4 so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, 5 and said to Moses, “The people are bringing much more than is needed for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” 6 So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; 7 for what they had already brought was more than was needed to do all the work.
Most importantly, I think, the parsha hints at a parallel between the urge to contribute and the urge to create, which is also described with reference to the heart:
Exodus 28:3 And you shall speak to all who have ability [literally, the wise of heart], whom I have endowed with skill, that they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood.
I think we are being encouraged to see the urge to contribute as a gift, like the gift to paint, write poetry, embroider, or play music. A person may be born with a gift to create art, but in almost all cases that special talent needs to be identified and then developed through education, training, imitation, the support of a mentor, and above all practice. The same is true for the talent to contribute.
Among other functions, the Mishkan served to hone the Israelites’ talent for contribution. In the wider context, this was vital. The Israelites had just escaped from being slaves in Egypt. Slavery is by its essence designed to crush individual initiative, a sense of responsibility, and the desire to build, create and make change.
A crucial difference between the storehouses of Rameses and Pithom and the Mishkan is that whereas Pharaoh used building materials to enslave the Israelites, God used building materials to show the Israelites that they are free to choose. Pharaoh sent the Israelites out to scour the country for straw to make his bricks. God wanted materials for the Mishkan only from those whose contributions were driven internally, by their own hearts, not by his command.
The Mishkan was the blueprint for the Temple. As an object of longing, at least, the Temple has been central to the Jewish sense of belonging, to both a people and a land. But if I had to rank in order of lasting importance the features of this week’s parsha, I’d be tempted to rank the means, that is, the heart that moves a person to contribute, above the end, the Mishkan. Jews have survived and thrived by honing and polishing this internal impulse to do something. To be sure, it’s always been a double-edged sword, a cause of fear and bitter envy. But it’s also been an inspiring model to others of what it really means to be free.
I want to end with ten intentionally varying cases, chosen mainly because I feel in some sense personally connected via family and friends, that exemplify the phenomenon I’ve been trying to describe – the internal drive to contribute, to build, to help, to effect change, to improve the world.
1 My late husband Peter’s maternal grandparents were murdered in a concentration camp called Jungfernhof, a converted castle in Latvia. Members of the Carlebach were also murdered there, including Rabbi Joseph Carlebach. According to accounts by camp survivors, Rav Carlebach did not merely organize prayer services in Jungfernhof. He built a Jewish school.
- Almost alone among the heads of the great European yeshivot, the leaders of Mir Yeshiva saw the writing on the wall. With crucial aid from heroic individuals, notably the Japanese government official Chiune Sugihara, the rabbis and students of Mir Yeshiva escaped on the Trans-Siberian railway. On arrival in Shanghai, where they remained for the rest of the War, they rebuilt Mir Yeshiva.
- My sister-in-law Subby’s father was born in Hungary, spent his adult years in Washington DC, and, towards the end of his life, moved to a home for the elderly in Jerusalem. Visiting him there once, I asked him about the wedding photograph on his wall (not the one below). Chana and I met and were married in a displaced persons camp in Italy, he said. Noticing the surprise on my face, he added: There were weddings almost every day. Mr. Friedman was proud to say that he had not expected to survive the camps, but at the time of his death he had over a hundred descendants.
- The Anglo-Jewish community will not be remembered for its hospitality towards Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Europe. A striking exception was Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who enabled many Jews, including hundreds of children, to enter England and settle with families. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, and inspired by his own Jewish Summer Camp experiences, Amos Schonfield founded Our Second Home, a summer camp for Syrian and other refugees to the UK. Donate here.
In August, we hosted a 5-day residential summer camp for young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.The aim of camp was to create a youth movement for these amazing and inspirational young people. In doing so, we hoped to create a safe, fun and friendly community for these young people who have found themselves in a foreign and unfamiliar country, most of whom are without their family.This highlights exactly what we hoped OSH would become when it was created a year ago and we can't wait for it to continue growing into the community these young people so well deserve!
Posted by Our Second Home on Wednesday, 21 November 2018
- My husband Chaim’s daughter Elisheva was studying Social Work at Ben Gurion University when African asylum seekers started to enter Israel across the Egyptian border in 2006. Unable to send them back to certain death in the Sinai desert, but having no alternative plan, IDF soldiers dropped off refugees in down-town Beer Sheva. Elisheva gave them direct and immediate help and co-founded a refugee support organization, ASSAF. She dropped out of university to devote herself fulltime to working on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel, and even now she’s back on an advanced academic track, she still volunteers tirelessly. Donate here.
- My friend and inspiration, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, grew up in Denver, Colorado, the daughter of a rabbi. When Mierle’s parents moved to Denver so that her father could take up his pulpit, the city suffered from a severe shortage of classical music. Mierle’s mother was not happy about living in a city without a professional orchestra; she became the driving force behind the Denver Symphony Orchestra.
- A few years, ago, at a neighborhood story telling event held in our apartment, a man spoke about his childhood growing up on a kibbutz. He was not looking back through rose-tinted glasses – far from it. But he told us this: the parents of a new baby born on the kibbutz discovered that their child would never be able to hear. The whole kibbutz learned sign language.
- Ruth Mason’s children attended Hassadna, an after-school music conservatory for Jerusalem children. She asked Lena and Ronit, who run the conservatory why there were student of Ethiopian origin. None apply, they said. Ruth worked with them to create a program for children of Ethiopian origin. One of the first students to sign up, an extraordinarily talented violinist, has since performed solo with the Israel Philharmonic. Donate to Hassadna here.
9. My friend Mimi is married to an impressive guy. From a modest New Jersey family, Morty became President of America’s best liberal arts college, Williams College, and is now President of one of America’s top universities, Northwestern. But Morty has yet to impress me more than Mimi did on 17th January 1994. Mort and Mimi were living with their kids in the San Fernando Valley, in Mimi’s hometown, Los Angeles. A major earthquake struck in the early hours of the morning, and the family huddled under the dining room table in the dark. Water and electricity supplies were cut. First thing, still under the table, Mimi called a bottled water delivery company. Against all the odds, a truck came, and the whole street got water.
- My friend Ariella’s father was born in Poland, survived the Holocaust, became a doctor in Israel and then Baltimore, Maryland, and invented the internal defibrillator. Thanks to his gift to the world of a device that literally moves hearts, many more hearts can move to give.