Parshat Terumah: Weddings, Mishkans and Ikea

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It’s an honor to celebrate Naomi’s and my aufruf here at Congregation Beth Shalom this Shabbat. It was quite appropriate, barely two weeks before our wedding, to consider Parshat Terumah with you today.

Parshat Terumah is situated between the mass revelation at Sinai and the Golden Calf, as we join Moses on Mt. Sinai for three parshiot.

This week’s portion reads like the first of three Ikea manuals on the Israelites’ new religion. Roommates, married or otherwise, know a little bit about assembling complicated instructions together. Parshat Terumah, not unlike an Ikea manual, can be very frustrating. First, neither are written in English. Second, sometimes there’s so much detail it makes your head swim and other times there’s no detail at all. It leaves you to imagine where this peg goes in what socket, whether you understand what color it’s really talking about and where on earth did they even get that component, because it certainly didn’t arrive in the kit!

And by that I mean this parsha goes into such detail and yet thousands of years later we still can only imagine what the thing it’s talking about looked like, the Mishkan:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

“Make me a temple and I will reside among them.”

For God’s mobile temple, the Mishkan, the Biblical text specifies inner and outer tents, an ark of gold, a menorah, and an altar. It specifies the artwork, joints, weaving, and colorings of each. Hundreds of verses. Rabbinic commentators further ascribed supernatural meaning to every part. It is said in various midrashim that the seven sets of instructions mirror the seven days of creation. Or that the numbers of pieces and parts mirror that of stars and planets in the cosmos.

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Why so much detail? According to one midrash, God had to show Moses the correct result in a model of colored flames, detailing even the weaves of color. That lead Moses to ask the Almighty, “Nu, where am I supposed to get purple fire and blue fire?” To which the Lord answered, and I paraphrase, “Quit being a smart ass, go sheer some goat wool.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks also “Why devote so much time and space to the Tabernacle?” He answers that “It is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, is to make a home for God.”

Jewish mystics explained that God’s infiniteness filled the universe until God tzimtzum, contracted, to make room for free will. Sacks points out that the Mishkan is where the Israelites didn’t just make a room for something greater, they made room for something greater in themselves.

Indeed, it is difficult for people to make room for another, to live together, and certainly to assemble complicated furniture together.

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Why is the Mishkan so tediously demonstrated to be the center of the universe? It’s neither so big nor so great. Why all the exuberance for this little sukkah?

Franz Rosenzweig guides us by indicating that the story of the building of the Tabernacle is a climax. A people previously enslaved to build for the glory of others are suddenly invited to build something for themselves. And how humble it was. Where they had once built pyramids to withstand the desert until today, they erected a tent. Where they had once wrought solid gold furniture, they covered wood with it. Where before were all the exotic animals of Egypt, they baked bread and sacrificed goats. What made the Beit Hamikdash so awing within the Biblical narrative was to be freed to do it themselves.

I remember being a teenager in a tiny congregation on the southern Oregon coast, where the chief job of the president was to take home our collapsible ark in the trunk of their car and to bring it back to the borrowed room in a Methodist church every month. And nothing was so beautiful as that little ark that we carted around, the tattered Torah we scraped and saved to buy, and the yad that I carved myself out of driftwood I found on the shore. We made it ourselves.

There is freedom in defining things for ourselves and in defining ourselves, like we do as we grow up and as we do again when we partner. Every new couple must find that time to step away from who they are to their parents, their siblings, their friends, their children even, and their other lives to define each other anew.

And it isn’t that silly to appreciate such a place in the desert as a re-creation of the universe. The symbolism of the wedding ceremony is exactly that: we circle each other, we stand under a tabernacle, we recite blessings that invoke concentric circles of community around us, and we entertain that in this union is the very spark of Genesis alive again!

Like the Israelites in Parshat Terumah, I am redefining my community, seeking to order the world with newfound priorities and trying my hardest to be the person I know I can be.

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For the difficulties will come.

This parsha represents the ideal, the blueprint. Beautiful and yet not totally clear, like a dream. In the Biblical narrative, before the implementation of these plans is the fall of Golden Calf. Reality bites.

And in this weeks’ customary Haftarah, we indeed learn how Solomon builds the First Temple. There is no outpouring of gifts and volunteerism: the people are taxed and indentured to the tune of 180,000 of them with over 3,000 task masters. We know what happens in the books of Kings and afterwards. We left Egypt only to become Egypt. A Jewish kingdom looks good on paper, we could say. Relationships can look good on paper too.

Parshat Terumah can be read as the beginning of a chapter, the Golden Calf as its middle, and the final completion of the Mikdash as the chapter’s triumphant end. In that case, it fits the story of the First Temple. Heroic King David was barred from building the Temple for his sins. It’s said that when his son King Solomon finally brought the Ark to the completed Temple, the doors refused to open to him! Not until he proved that he was not his father, but his own person.

In entering our adult lives, we must live with the world that was given to us, not the one promised to us by our parents. And we fix the world’s ills even as we make promises to our own children. In other words, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

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And what guides us as we continue that task? Turning dreams into reality is truly magical. In order to turn Parshat Terumah’s dictates into a real holy place, God endowed the Israelites’ chief craftsman Bezalel with the same power used to create the universe. That’s how much it takes.

Think back to the midrash about God showing Moses a vision of the Mikdash made of fire. We are bid this week not just to remember the ideal. Not just to imagine the world as it should be. But to enshrine it. To sanctify it. To keep the ideal holy.

There is freedom in doing it for yourself, like the Israelites did. There is marvel in the tzimtzum of doing it in partnership with someone else. There is power in enshrining the ideal and passing it on. — There is redemption in small tikuns and large, l’dor vador.

Our homes – at least my partner’s and my home – might not be the grandest, its decorations not the finest, its furniture procured overly much from Ikea. But we should make them the most awing thing we have ever built. Nothing will compare with the fabric we weave ourselves, the bread we bake ourselves, the words we say ourselves, the community we gather at our door ourselves, and the Presence we invite within.

May it be so true for us all. Shabbat shalom.

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Israeli charity app won’t give to nonprofits’ overhead — huge mistake

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As covered in Haaretz,— a new charity phone app called “MyIsrael”— donates 4% of shopping with online UK retailers to end-users of Israeli nonprofit services. Especially for Israel’s social sector, this is a horrible idea.

While I sympathize with the popular prejudice against “overhead” and “administrative costs,” it’s an oppressive regime on nonprofits. What counts as overhead? Staff training so they can do their jobs better. Or compensating staff responsibly so they’ll stay longer and rise higher. Replacing old computers and updating the database. Or investing in better fundraising so that more money can be raised — even if it costs a higher percentage of the annual budget.

Dan Pallotta makes this point effectively in his TED Talk (see below). If increasing the percentage of overhead from 20% to 45% of an organization’s annual budget resulted in an after-overhead increase from $1 million to $100 million dollars towards the cause, then surely we’d tolerate higher administrative costs? We certainly should.

And in my experience, the Israeli nonprofit sector is even less well-tooled in administrative capacity, institutional memory and employee compensation than America’s. With a weak public culture of giving, it’s even harder to raise funding domestically and thus nonprofits rely overwhelming on overseas donors. (Professional estimates put 90% of the country’s third sector as foreign-funded by diaspora Jewry. This includes even hospitals, shelters, and the like.)

As an simple example, I recall American college students grilling some Israeli social change leaders. These average students knew to ask how a given nonprofit’s activities achieve its end goals. The Israelis were unable to articulate their theory of change clearly. Just as common, skills like office management, strategic planning and donor appreciation struggle upstream in a culture of greater spontaneity and anti-institutionalism. (Which have their advantages for sure.) The overall point is that if you ask any organizational consultant in Israel what Israeli NGOs need, it’s investment in both people and infrastructure.

If MyIsrael wanted to make a bigger difference, they’d dedicate all of their proceeds to only capacity-building, enabling their beneficiary agencies to “expand their pie” and raise more locally, do it better, and reach more end users.

A little flowchart I made for Israeli grassroots organizers

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Which most of you out there will not doubt find very boring. I’m totally enjoying my volunteer consulting practice here in Tel Aviv. Produced with Gliffy.

A quick addition to clarify any confusion: the purpose of this chart was to help a young organizer I’m coaching here to understand the trajectory of an online acquisition into the central database and how that faceless name is identified for promotion later. (Another forthcoming chart will explain the stages of acquisition behind this.) A few friends objected that social media seems to get the short-shrift as an engagement tool, which isn’t what I’m saying here. I know that some CRM databases can track social media interactions through custom-built apps, but it’s expensive and not typical. (Post me a comment below if you know otherwise.)

CRM Data Flow for Grassroots Campaigns