Parashat T’rumah (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
We begin the extensive treatment of creating a Tabernacle – a place for God and Israel to dwell together – in our Torah reading. The discussion will continue to the end of the book of Exodus – it is that important.
But what is its importance to us? Is the building of God’s House a unique endeavor, with its own rules and goals, or is the building of God’s House meant to serve as a paradigm for how we should build our own houses? Is God’s House an incomparable case, or can housing developers or landlords, for instance, learn something from this example?
Our tradition has given us some guidance about this. It is clear that we are not meant to copy the specifications of the Tabernacle and transfer them to our architecture. Indeed, this is expressly forbidden. (See BT Rosh Hashanah 24a, for instance.) But the underlying values that are the foundations of this construction project are meant to be embraced by all of us, everywhere: “When they build a sanctuary for Me, then I will dwell within them.” (Ex. 25:8) What, then, are the values we should copy and internalize?
As I have discussed before, we should notice that the beginning of this sacred project is founded on free-will giving, on an open-hearted spirit. The verse explains: “From each person whose heart prompts them to give – take the offering for Me.” (Ex. 25:2) The creation of a house for God depended on whether some people would be willing to voluntarily be generous. Only after this opening of the heart that first established the Tabernacle would a set contribution be ordered for its upkeep. The obligation to maintain the House only follows after the generous giving that is not obligatory at all. (See Sparks for 2011 and 2012.)
The message is clear – the building blocks of God’s House are not the materials themselves but the giving spirits of those who feel so moved. No one is required to feel the need to give, but, if no one has such a generous impulse, there will be no House of God at all, for anyone. No one is required to feel the need to give, but everyone is obligated to support the project created by those who are moved by their open hearts.
So it seems to me that we should remember this lesson – “take it to heart,” as they say, whenever we hear claims or complaints that a house of worship should be kept free of controversy and should scrupulously maintain a neutral stance regarding the moral issues that challenge us. The Torah does not give us detailed specifics about how to vote or what social policies to adopt. But it does tell us that the House of God is not built on selfishness or self-interest. It is built of generosity of spirit and commitment to selfless sacrifice and giving.
A House of God, if it is to serve its sacred purpose, cannot be neutral about the necessity for compassion and lovingkindness. A House of God is only worthy of that name when it reminds us continuously of this value as the foundation for building our own homes and our own society.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein
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