Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Exodus 25:1 - 27:19
February 28, 2004 6 Adar 5764
We tend to think of the Tabernacle as an intimidating space, a bastion of hierarchy and exclusivity. Governed by priests born for service and encumbered by a welter of regulations, it did not lend itself to easy access by rank and file Israelites. Its holiness militated against any spontaneity or departure from the norm. And yet its construction exhibited a profoundly populist impulse. Voluntary gifts from every quarter of the Israelite population formed the material out of which the institution was built. Conceivably, had the Israelites refused to give, the sanctuary, the symbol of God's presence in the camp, would not have come into existence. I am struck by the total lack of coercion. God did not have Moses levy a special tax for the purpose, but merely asked for individual contributions: "Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him" (Exodus 25:2).
And bring they did, with such exuberance and largesse that those in charge of the project begged Moses to end the campaign: "The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done" (Exodus 36:5). The design for the Tabernacle came from above, but the wherewithal came from below, freely tendered without a trace of compulsion. The creation of sacred space required the consent of those to be served by it. Holiness cannot be fabricated and foisted in the face of massive dissent. The key to drawing God into the midst of a faith community is the personal engagement of its members.
Rabbi Tarphon, who as a child still witnessed the sacrificial cult of the Second Temple, taught the importance of this insight in a sensitive reading of our passage: "Work is to be celebrated, for even God did not bestow God's presence on Israel until they had labored, which is why Scripture says: 'And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them'" (Exodus 25:8). Put differently: "Easy come, easy go." What lands in our lap without effort quickly loses its meaning for us. Though miracles were to abound in the wilderness, the Tabernacle was not built by divine fiat. The deep involvement of all Israelites in its construction, as both donors and craftsmen, not only expressed their consent at the outset but also heightened their commitment at the end. Work creates value.
In the same vein, Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, two generations later, observed that even Adam was not allowed to eat a thing from God's new world until he had enhanced it with his own labor. Again, insight flows from a careful reading of the text. The sequence of the narrative makes the point. First, "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it." And only then does Scripture go on to relate: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat'" (Genesis 2:15-16). That is, to fully appreciate something, we need to work for it. We are fated to complete the work of creation, to turn wheat into bread or grapes into wine, not because God is limited but because we humans are. We are all too ready to disparage and dismiss that which has not been achieved by the sweat of our brow. (Both midrashim appear in Avot de Rabbi Natan, Schechter edition, 44-45).
To me, the popular voluntarism that enabled Moses to erect Israel's mobile sanctuary is the operative paradigm for the American Jewish community. According to Dr. Jack Wertheimer, JTS's Provost, in 1995 American Jews contributed the staggering sum of $4.2 to $4.4 billion to Jewish causes at home and abroad, a threefold increase over what they had given just twenty years before. Of that figure, some $2 billion was earmarked for the synagogues, day schools and organizations of the religious sector. In the federation campaigns, smaller communities in 1993 registered a higher per capita rate than larger ones, with the 300 Jews of Waco, Texas giving $1,267 per person while Cleveland showed $376, Los Angeles $86 and New York $80 per person ("Current Trends in American Jewish Philanthropy," American Jewish Year Book, 1997, 40-49). It cannot be repeated too often that these sums are entirely self-generated, the extraordinary product of a culture that puts a premium on voluntary giving. Government funding is largely restricted to the agencies within the Jewish community that provide human services. In other words, the religious and cultural renaissance currently animating American Jewry is funded solely by a self-reliant spirit of disciplined voluntarism.
Two vital benefits accrue to the Jewish community from its independence. First, its leadership, whether lay, religious or professional, is self-selected; that is, selected by other Jews. Power does not derive from outside. Since the Jewish community exists by right of the Constitution and not any special legislation enacted by Washington, no American government would ever presume to appoint a chief rabbi or communal leader. Ultimate authority lies with the members of the community, be it local or national, religious or secular, and they alone choose the men and women who will administer their affairs. Democracy is the governing ethos of Jewish life.
Second, independence requires responsibility. What American Jews don't do for themselves will not be done for them. Opportunities for individual engagement abound. Contributions of time and talent are as indispensable as monetary gifts to effecting institutional missions. Communal work yields transcendent meaning of many sorts for countless American Jews in search of more than material comfort. They know that to identify with a cause infuses their life with significance.
Yet another midrash on our parashah intones the virtue of participating. The first appurtenance of the Tabernacle to be crafted was the ark that would house the tablets of the Ten Commandments and host God's presence. Unlike the instructions for all the other appurtenances, which were directed to Moses alone in the second person singular, the instructions for the ark were intended for everyone and hence cast in the third person plural (the imperative plural): "They shall make an ark of acacia wood" (Exodus 25:10). Here, as so often, a small anomaly leads to a big idea. A late Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom, expounded the deeper meaning of the difference. In contrast to the table (25:23) and the altar (27:1), which symbolized the monarchy (royal wealth and power) and the priesthood, respectively, the ark with its divine word incarnate symbolized the full expanse of Torah. Hence God said to Moses: "Let everyone come to participate in the making of the ark so that all of them might one day merit the crown of Torah" (Sh'mot Rabbah, 34:2).
Whereas monarchy and priesthood were restricted by descent, Torah was decidedly not. It awaited all who felt impelled to embrace it. With the loss of political sovereignty and the destruction of the Temple, the centrality of Torah transformed Judaism into a spiritual meritocracy. But appropriation requires initiative, engagement and persistence. Participation in the life of Torah is what turns entitlement into salvation. And by extension, sustaining the Jewish communal institutions to which it gives rise by repeated instances of self-sacrifice also assures one of its inimitable blessings.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,