Establishing a System

Parashat Terumah lays out a list of regulations for spiritual development.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Terumah, Moses receives instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle wherein God's presence will dwell amongst the Jewish people. The Mishkan does not provide for any obvious material need, nor is it a victory monument or a wonder of the world intended to evoke pride or inspiration. Rather, the Mishkan establishes a system that lays out demands and regulations for spiritual development, a system that persisted for centuries in the ancient Jewish kingdoms and can provide us with insights for modern nation building.
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In addition to a litany of architectural requirements and building materials listed in the parashah, the text also makes demands upon the individuals involved in the construction. From the outset, the Torah requires that those contributing to the project have noble intentions. Bnei Yisrael is instructed: "Take for Me a donation; from each man whose heart makes him willing."

Financiers of the Mishkan cannot be emotionally disconnected from the enterprise, but must give out of a volunteering heart. Rashi, explaining the unusual phrase v'yikchu li terumah (take for Me a donation) writes, "li: lishmi--for Me: for my Name." The contributions to the Mishkan must be given for the sake of God alone, without thought for personal benefit. The construction of the Mishkan requires more than the simple allocation of resources. It demands heartfelt identification with the enterprise and motivation beyond that of self interest.

A Focus on Collective Action

Furthermore, the Mishkan as a system necessitates a focus on collective, rather than individual action. The parashah, in conveying the instructions for building the structures of the Tabernacle, generally uses the second person singular, "you shall make." It makes an exception, switching to third person plural, when commanding "they shall make the ark." The Or HaChaim, an 18th-century Moroccan commentator, picks up on this inconsistency, explaining that the Mishkan illustrates an individual's responsibility in the framework of the nation as a whole:

"No single individual can perform all the precepts of the Torah. For instance, a priest cannot fulfill the bestowing of the 24 priestly gifts... whilst an Israelite cannot fulfill the positive commands of the sacrifices...But, taken as a whole, the nation of Israel can keep the entire gamut of Jewish observances."

These principles that informed the construction of the Mishkan--noble intention and collective engagement--could be well utilized in guiding a modern contribution and construction enterprise, U.S. foreign aid. We might assume that the sole purpose of U.S. foreign assistance is to fight poverty and to improve the lives of citizens of developing countries. But in fact, this noble goal is pursued together with, and often in conflict with, a second stated goal, that of "furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets." As a consequence of these competing intentions, most aid is distributed to allies in the “war on terror” and “war on drugs,” while only a small portion actually supports humanitarian work.

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Daniel Bloom

Daniel Bloom is an Australian-born environmentalist who currently works as a program associate at Hazon. He lives with his wife in New York City.