Since our wonderful scholar-in-residence Rabbi Menachem Creditor is in Israel to see UJA’s work on the ground, I had the privilege of teaching one of the many study groups he normally leads each week. In my almost five years at UJA, this was the first time I served as “substitute rabbi.”
After hours of preparation and creating source sheets, I developed an even greater admiration for what Menachem and so many rabbis seem to do with ease. Menachem teaches people with highly diverse backgrounds and interests, from all different segments of our community. What they have in common is the desire to study and find meaning in our Jewish texts. And Menachem (as Rabbi Michael Paley did before him) brilliantly facilitates their learning on a wide variety of subjects.
Just coincidentally (if there is such a thing), I was asked to lead a session about this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, Hebrew for “contribution” or “gift” — a UJA CEO’s dream parsha!
Terumah describes in painstaking detail the building of the Tabernacle, the elaborate yet portable “house for God” that the Israelites carried with them from place to place as they wandered the desert for 40 years.
Many commentators ask why the narrative about the Tabernacle is described in such exhaustive detail. It was only a temporary structure, and yet the description of the building and the objects contained within takes up almost the whole last third of the book of Exodus. An even more basic question, why is the building of the Tabernacle contained in the Exodus story at all? Exodus is the story of the birth of a nation. Why then spend so much of the book describing the construction of curtains and tables and the other objects in the Tabernacle?
One possible answer, suggested by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is to look at all that came before. Up until this moment, the Israelites were passive receivers. They were brought out of bondage. The Red Sea was split before them. Their food, manna, was provided for them. Things were done for them (and they mostly whined).
Now, at last, they are the ones doing. Building. Giving.
The Tabernacle — this house for God — was the first great project the Israelites undertook together. And it was funded, as we’re told in the Bible, out of the gifts of “everyone whose heart prompts them to give.” With this building, the Israelites became, as Rabbi Sacks beautifully notes, “co-architects of their own destiny,” capable of collective action and responsible for one another.
And so it turns out that perhaps the structure itself matters less than the act of building. God, after all, doesn’t really live in buildings. He lives, as Rabbi Sacks puts so eloquently, in the heart of the builders. He adds, “When people give voluntarily to one another and to holy causes, that is where the divine presence rests.”
I see this concept come alive in our work every day. The act of giving itself matters almost as much as what the gift makes possible. It changes the giver. And the giver can change the world.