Did you hear about the message Israel recently sent to the Egyptians because of all the unrest and rioting there?
“Dear Egyptian brothers! Please don’t damage the Pyramids. We will not rebuild. We are too busy now, and we are much more expensive than we used to be.”
Signed, “The Jewish people.”
The Jewish people are great builders. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, describes the great building project of the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus—the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, a visible home of the Shechina, the Divine Presence. As the opening of today’s Torah portion reads: “Gd said to Moses: ‘Speak to the Children of Israel—vayikchu Li t’ruma—and let them take for Me a contribution. Take My contribution from everyone whose heart implores him to give.”
The key phrase in Gd’s request is, asher yidvenu libo, “whose heart implores them.” Gd only wanted motivated, inspired hearts to have the privilege of contributing to the construction of His Sanctuary.
But why? Why didn’t Gd just impose a tax on the Jewish people to build the Mishkan? There were other imposed taxes like the ½ shekel tax for every Jewish male given each year to the Temple. Wasn’t it a great risk to depend on the generosity of people for such an important project? What if the people wouldn’t give enough to build it?
Another puzzling choice of words in the text is the word vayikchu, “take.” Why does Gd say, “Take a contribution for Me?” instead of “Give Me a contribution.” The Sforno explains that this command was directed to the leaders to collect only voluntary contributions and not to tax the people. But this is a bit of a stretch in the understanding of the text. Others comment that by giving, really one takes back much more.
A more fitting answer to both questions can be found in the Haftorah for this Shabbos. We don’t read this Haftorah today, however, because it’s Rosh Chodesh. But it’s still there for us to study and gain insight into the parsha nevertheless. The story of the Haftorah is the story of King Solomon building the 1st Temple in Jerusalem. He funded it by imposing a heavy tax upon the people (Kings 1 5:27). And, as history shows us, the results of that tax, in the long run, were catastrophic. The tax burden was continued after the Temple was built by Solomon’s son, Rechavam, and that resulted in a revolt by the northern 10 tribes.
The lesson in the 2 stories—the Torah reading and its Haftorah—is that the foundation of a sacred space for Gd must be built by human choice. And the people must feel that they are taking as much as they are giving—that they are building something for themselves as well. You can force people to do many things. But you cannot force them to turn their hearts and lives into a home for Gd. It has to come from within.
Rabbi Anchelle Perl from Mineola, NY, asks: “If You Were Given $4 million to Pay for a 30-second commercial at the Super Bowl, what would Your Message be? What Would You Promote? Remember you only have only 30-seconds to reach millions of viewers.”
It’s an intriguing question. Rabbi Perl shares his personal Super Bowl Ad:
The Scene: a Rabbi blesses a Bar Mitzvah boy that he should grow to become a source of pride to the Jewish people and to his family. As he turns to leave, the Rabbi addresses to the youngster: “Are you a football fan?”
The Bar-Mitzvah boy replies that he is.
“Which team are you a fan of—the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks?”
“The Denver Broncos,” replies the boy.
“Tell me if your team was losing what would you do?”
“I would make a decision in advance to leave if this was happening.”
“Do you think your favorite team players would so also leave the game when you leave?”
“Rabbi, the players can’t leave in the middle of the game!”
“Why not?” asked the Rabbi. “Explain to me how this works.”
“There are players and fans,” the young man explained. “The fans can leave when they like because they’re not part of the game and the game continues after they leave. But the players need to stay and try to win until the game is over.”
“That is the lesson I want to teach you in Judaism,” said the Rabbi with a smile. “You can be either a fan or a player in the arena of life. Be a player, we all need you!”
I love that metaphor. When I 1st read it I knew I would have to share it with you. “You can be a fan or a player” in Jewish life. That was the decision faced by Scarlett Johansson this week. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to you that Scarlett—who is Jewish and was proclaimed by Esquire Magazine as the sexiest woman alive—will star this Sunday in Israel-based SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial. SodaStream manufactures its products near Maaleh Adumim, which the Boycott Israel movement considers the dreaded “Occupied” West Bank even though it’s only 5 minutes from some Jerusalem neighborhoods. It employs hundreds of both Palestinians and Israelis with equal rights and conditions.
When this was announced, the political left seemed to go into spasms. Oxfam International—a “confederation of 17 organizations working together to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice”—quickly condemned her decision even though Johansson has been supporting Oxfam International since 2004 and became their global ambassador in 2006. Understand that there is increasing pressure upon celebrities to support the BDS—Boycott, Divest and Sanction—movement against Israel. And Scarlett was widely condemned because she now is associated with a Jewish factory that employs hundreds of Palestinians. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it??? Oxfam claims it works to fight injustice? How about the injustice they placed upon Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream?
However, this week Scarlett—who has not taken too active a role in Jewish life till now—released a statement that said she has “a fundamental difference of opinion” with Oxfam and that she “has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role…after 8 years.” In a sense, Scarlett made a choice from her Jewish heart. She stopped being just a fan of Jewish life and became a player, and so she stood up for her people to “BDS” Oxfam.
My friends, we can be fans or players in Jewish life. That’s why Gd didn’t ask the Jews to give to the Mishkan, the portable Temple they built in the dessert. He asked them to take, to be a player, a participant in the Temple and Jewish life.
We can sit back and reminisce about the wonderful times we had with our parents or Bubbie and Zeydie on Shabbos and Yom Tov at home and in shule, or, we can be players as we live those memories and create new wonderful Jewish memories for our children and grandchildren. We can say we are fans of Jewish education or we can support Jewish educational facilities as we take a course or 2 ourselves.
Jewish life is an amazing and wonderful adventure. But ask yourself: Will you be a fan or a player? Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis