Dvar Torah on Parshat Terumah

Parashat Hashavua Terumah 2017 / 5777 - The Ark of the Covenant: Don't Follow Leaders

03.03.2017 by

It has become a cliché that we are facing a leadership crisis. In politics and statecraft, culture and religion, there seems to be a lack of great leadership. Instead, what we see is a yearning for strong, emphatic, infallible leaders, who will take care of everything for us, and who, sooner or later, let us down.

In parshat Terumah, the making of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – in the desert, becomes the Torah’s central topic. For the next few portions, we will be taught the details of the structure and the furnishings and utensils used in it.

As God begins to explain what the Tabernacle is and how it should be constructed, He speaks only to Moshe; it is Moshe who is commanded to get the Israelites to donate the necessary materials and it is Moshe’s job to build the Tabernacle. Throughout the entire parsha, God instructs Moshe in the same way: “and you shall make”, “and you shall cover”, “and you shall bring”, “and you shall place”, “and you shall connect”, etc., etc. In subsequent portions, other individuals will be brought into the picture to assist, either by name (Bezalel and Oholiav, the architects/builders) or by class (wise women and men, workmen), but, from the outset, the commandment, the job, the responsibility, and, one assumes, the credit, are all Moshe’s. 

One exception stands out. Early in the parsha, just after God has listed the materials which will need to be donated, the first – and most important - element of the Mishkan is mentioned: the ark. Now, the ark is certainly the absolute epicenter of the building, the whole point, actually, as it contains the Ten Commandments and functions as the place from which God will speak to Moshe. It is the focus of God’s presence in the Temple, and of ongoing interaction with Moshe and, through him, the Jewish people. The commandment to build this all-important element reads differently from the others we will see in the parsha: “And they shall make an ark of Shittim wood, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide…” Here, the commandment, though spoken to Moshe, is not addressed to him but, rather, to them: the people of Israel, they shall make the ark.

What is the reason for the difference in the way God presents the commandment to build the ark? Why is the mitzvah addressed to all of Israel, and not only Moshe?

In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma, 3b) Abba Hannan says in the name of Rabbi Elazar – “One verse [in Deuteronomy] says ‘and you [Moshe] shall make for yourself an ark’, and here it says ‘they shall make an ark’. How can this be so? In one, we are talking about a situation in which the people of Israel do God’s will, and in the other they are not doing His will.”

The Rabbis point out that a later verse (the one in Deuteronomy) is similar to most of the verses in our portion: the commandment to build an ark is addressed to Moshe – it even says that he shall make the ark “for himself”- whereas in our portion, the building of the ark is, uniquely, commanded to “them” – the entire people, and not to Moshe. How do they explain this contradiction?

Their answer is that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing this mitzvah, and, in general, of approaching the building of the Tabernacle, or, apparently, any public task. “If the people of Israel do God’s will” it is their job, their mitzvah, to build the ark. If, however, they are “not doing God’s will”, the ark is not credited to them, but to their leader, Moshe.

The lesson here about leadership – and following leaders – is clear. In a normal, positive, healthy situation – when we are doing God’s will – a society is actually run by its members; it is the people themselves who take responsibility, do the right thing, and get the job done. It is dysfunctional for a leader to do too much leading, for the tasks facing his society to be taken care of by him or her, for the necessary public work to be the responsibility of leadership rather than of all the members of society. If the Israelites are functioning as a healthy nation, it is they who will get the job of building the all-important ark done, and not Moshe.

Our current leadership crisis has many causes, but one dynamic is clear: A situation in which the public expects a leader to “build the ark” – to deal with the crucial tasks facing their society – demands a leader at least as great as Moshe to make that happen. We see, on a daily, even hourly, basis, that leadership like that is extremely rare. Not only that: for many very obvious reasons, it is the wrong way to get things done, the wrong way to run a community.

What we must understand is that it is the members of society themselves who need to step up and take responsibility for the major issues facing them, rather than relying on an all-powerful leader to get the job done. It is a failing society – one “not doing God’s will” – which looks to its leaders to “build the ark.” A healthy nation understands that such a dynamic is actually a societal failure, and admission of defeat.  Rather than looking for a Moshe to save us, we need to step up and do it ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,


In a normal, positive, healthy situation – when we are doing God’s will – a society is actually run by its membersRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Terumah

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