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Terumah

By Andrew Levy

Greed or Good?

There are messages from the stories of the Tabernacle, and its later incarnation as the Temple, on which we do not focus. Yet this week’s parashah and choice of haftarah allow us to see what the authors of the text, and the Rabbis who drew up our liturgical calendar, were thinking.

Beloved of Rabbinic homilies is the passage in Exodus 25: 2 which describes how the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle built in the desert, was funded:

‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering.’

Freed from the slavery of Egypt, the people felt moved to donate voluntary offerings so that the Tabernacle could be built. Clearly it was a wonderful example of joint, communal effort.

The haftarah which the Rabbis chose as the ‘parallel’ passage was the building of Solomon’s Temple. It is a haftarah which passes by with perhaps too little comment. The Temple was of course a much more grandiose affair than the Tabernacle. Built largely from cedar wood imported from Lebanon and cypress wood, the Temple took several years to complete.

The irony of the passage, however, is not really the ‘parallel’ but the contrast. When Solomon built the Temple, he imposed what the Hebrew text calls a ‘mas’ (I Kings 5: 27) on the children of Israel. The exact meaning and context of this word is crucial. In modern Hebrew, it means a ‘tax’ – leading many now to assume that the Temple was built through taxation of the populace.

That is not what the word means in the Bible. The word ‘mas’ means something like ‘forced labour’ or ‘indenture’. The contrast is now stark. The Temple was built on the back of the people’s serf-like, or even slave-like, suffering; it is obviously very different to the voluntary contributions brought by the people in building the Tabernacle.

But in order fully to understand the real meaning of a word in the Bible, one has to check what it means in other contexts. The word ‘mas’ is used in the most striking of other contexts. It is the word used to describe what the taskmasters did to the Children of Israel before even mentioning slavery (see Exodus 1: 11).

In other words, the description of the building of the Temple provocatively quotes the same word as that describing the burdens of slavery which the Children of Israel suffered when building the Egyptian cities as a monument to Pharaoh’s glory. As the contemporary Israeli thinker Micah Goodman writes in relation to the building of Solomon’s Temple: ‘It all reminds one of the days of slavery in Egypt. It is just that this time the people do not need to return to Egypt; Egypt comes to them’ (Moses’s Final Speech; Dvir [2014], page 253; in Hebrew).

The message resonates today. We value progress but at what price? Is that grand building we are told is so needed really progress? Or is it actually someone else’s vanity project or bottom-line profit? Greed or good? The answer is rarely crystal clear but perhaps, just sometimes, the comparatively ramshackle Tabernacle is a better model than a no-expenses-spared Temple.

Andrew Levy is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.

Posted on 1 March 2017

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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