God’s contractor

by | Feb 5, 2016 | Torah Thought

Every winter, the Jewish calendar rolls around to Parshat Terumah, a Torah portion whose every word is devoted to the details of the portable tabernacle that the Israelites will carry from Egypt to the Promised Land. It’s all lengths, widths, and materials: a distinct contrast to the thunderous revelation at Sinai from two Shabbats earlier and the lists of widely varied ethical mandates that comprise last week’s reading. When reading Terumah, I always picture Moses with a clipboard, jotting down the specifications he’s receiving from God and checking to make sure he has them right. “Okay, you want the long facing walls to be 20 planks each and the short wall eight planks. And all the wood has to be acacia, right?… You got a whole lot of cloth hangings ordered here. Maybe we should have a Plan B in case the Israelites don’t kick in enough.… Okay, if you’re sure, I’m sure.”

I’ve never hired a contractor for a big project, but it seems to me that Moses is better suited to being God’s contractor than for almost every other role he takes on as he leads the Israelites across the wilderness. He has learned how to delegate responsibility, and in the chapters of the Book of Exodus, we’ll see him doing a great job of gathering materials for the mishkan and assigning design and artisanal work to talented subcontractors. Moses also has a gift for dealing with the entity for whom he’s working, taking a stand when he disagrees with God and doing a little massaging when God gets upset. Moses is able to hit the right balance between leadership and deference.

Parshat Terumah and Moses’s role as God’s contractor underscore how important human beings are to God’s plans for the world. God doesn’t just wave a wand to bring the desert tabernacle into being. God tells Moses to ask the Israelites for gifts (terumah) of the precious metals, colored yarns, animal skins, and other materials required to create the mishkan, then outlines the tasks to be performed by craftspeople among them; everyone has at least the opportunity to contribute to God’s sanctuary project. Nor does God announce the materials and specs to the mixed multitude from on high. God communicates with Moses, knowing that Moses is fully human and has plenty of the flaws that come with being human, trusting that he and the other flawed humans will get the task done and do a good job. And it’s an important task: the mishkan will be a place in God will dwell (Exodus 25:8).

What does this mean for us as contemporary humans and as Jews? One thing is that what makes Moshe Rabbeinu a success as God’s contractor is high on the list of qualities we should emulate in our reverence for him. Moses defers to God in the way we should defer to any force more powerful than we are, such as nature when it’s destructive or challenging. None of us can stop an earthquake, snowstorm, or tidal surge, but we can prepare for natural occurrences before they hit. More important, we can endeavor to bring about change in the world that might lessen nature’s wrath in the future.

And we can take away from Terumah the concept that every single person has the potential to contribute to society and every Jew can contribute to the future of am Yisrael, the Jewish people. Many Jews have told me that they don’t have the knowledge or the spiritual capacity or the money to take part in active Jewish life. But there are lots of communal Jewish experiences that cost exactly nothing, and as for Judaic knowledge and spiritual engagement, those come after you get involved; they come because you get involved. The contributions God tells Moses to ask for aren’t really physical things. The gold and silver and copper, the fine linen and goat’s hair and colored yarns, the acacia wood and all the other items God wants for the tabernacle are metaphors for some of our time, our mental focus, our willingness to connect with others. Those are the gifts that serve God today.

—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah