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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Terumah - Building Holiness, Together

Parashat Terumah is made up almost entirely of instructions on how the Israelites were to build the tabernacle - a holy place to worship God - in the desert. An ark made of acacia wood to contain the stone tablets upon which the commandments were written, cherubim of gold with wings to hang over it, a wood table overlaid with gold and gold containers to be displayed on it, a gold menorah to light the structure - and these are only the instructions for inside the tabernacle!

The portion opens with these words: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me terumah - gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” (Exodus 25:2) This magnificent, ornate, complex structure must, according to God’s instructions, be built from the material that the Israelite people are willing to contribute. But, and this is significant, the verse makes very clear when it says “kol ish asher yidvenu libo - every person whose heart is so moved” that each and every person traveling with the Israelites, rich and power, with or without status, man or woman, even the non-Israelites that traveled with them were eligible to give towards the construction of the tabernacle, the sanctuary in which God would reside among the Israelites on Earth. 

The message is clear: God’s home on Earth, a place of utmost holiness, can only be built through a collective effort of the entire people. Each and every person’s contribution, however big or small, is a necessary part of creating holiness, in creating the things that unite us and hold us together as a nation. 

I look around the Israel of the last few months, post October 7th, and I see precisely what the Torah is describing in this portion. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands - we will never know the actual number - have answered the call for help, to give, on behalf of others that have been affected by this war.  

There are small acts of help, like purchasing at the pop-up farmers markets for farms from the Gaza envelope whose produce could not be transported and sold in their normal places or creating WhatsApp chat groups to provide meals for families where one parent was serving in reserve duty for an extended time. There were also monumental acts, people opening their small homes and inviting a second family to live with them, people closing their restaurants and opening food trucks to feed soldiers near the front line entirely at their own expense, taking over parking lots and turning them into collection and distribution centers for families and people in need. 

These people came from all ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Jews, Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians, Christians, Muslims, religious, secular, poor rich - it did not matter, so many people stepped up, and continue to heed the call, to help the thousands that have been displaced, lost jobs, or have otherwise been adversely affected in the past months. None of these people were asked, there was no requirement or reward for volunteering, they did and do so simply because, just as the verse from the portion reads, their hearts were, and are, so moved. 

For me this is one of the few bright spots, one of the few rays of hope that has kept my faith in humanity alive. While so much of the evil, the hatred, and the division catches the headlines - the real story is just how much humanity has been on display almost since the very beginning of the terrible events of October 7th. It is so easy to get lost in the darkness, to see only the terrible things and to hear only the voices of those who are strengthened by making people fearful and hateful. Yet, I always try to return to the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, who enriched so many of our childhoods (and many adulthoods as well) who remind us that, when things seem scary to “look for the helpers.” When I look around and see how many have selflessly come to the aid of others, most of whom they have never met, I am in awe. I am in awe of this nation and I count myself lucky to be a member of such a people. 

So much was broken on October 7th, so much was undone, but what Parashat Terumah reminds us is that the most important things, the holy spaces we all so badly need, are built strongest and in their most meaningful form when they are built collectively. When people from all backgrounds, called to service from the goodness of their hearts, give according to their ability there is very little they cannot achieve. For the ancient Israelites, their task was to construct a mishkan, a place in which God could dwell among them on their long, difficult journey from slavery to sovereignty. For us, modern Israelites, our task is to try and piece back together some of what was broken several months ago. And we must not be satisfied just with putting back together what was broken - we have the opportunity to construct something stronger, more beautiful, holier than before. We have seen as a nation just how powerful we can be when we set our differences aside and come together in a common cause. 

We as a nation have a chance that comes along only rarely, the chance to build a new mishkan, a place that has room for all the different parts of the Israeli mosaic. If we work together, allow everyone to contribute the best of what they have to offer, we can build Israeli society in a way that it never has been before. Like our ancestors, we have the raw materials and the expertise to do it. All we must do is choose this path and do the hard work. From all we have seen over the past months, it is certainly not just a dream.

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