This week’s parsha finds the Israelites in the desert being instructed to build the mishkan, along with all of the required gathering of gold, silver, acacia wood… the list goes on. Most of the parsha consists of directions for where things are to go, what they should be made of, and what they will be used for once the work is complete. The plans are meticulous, and the materials to be used spare no expense.
At this point in our story, we’re not so far removed from slavery in Egypt, so it may be an uncomfortable idea that we’re already being given instructions to build things at the behest of a new authority, but the positioning of this parsha is important here. The Isrealites have just finished building the golden calf, and been punished for doing so, but here God clearly sees that they were building something physical because they felt that something was missing. Even after witnessing a miracle, it’s hard to believe in something we can’t see. To build, is a way to “inscribe our faith” on the physical world. The building directions in this week’s parsha, give the people an outlet for their productive energy and a tangible way to express their faith that will ultimately benefit the community. In this way, despite the exacting demands in place for the mishkan, the work brings the community together as a people.
The materials required for the building of the mishkan are unlikely to be found in their desert surroundings, so the community must pool together what they have materially as well as their labour in order to complete this colossal endeavour. Having left Egypt in a hurry and camped out at Sinai waiting for the commandments, the people are no doubt scattered, tired, and feeling the strain of their sudden flight. They’re refugees from a people systematically removed from a shared identity, and they have yet to rediscover the cultural and material wealth that they have as a community. By asking them to pool what few belongings of value they may have as individuals, the building of the mishkan gives not only a tangible representation of their faith, but also of the wealth that they share as a people. It takes an entire people to raise a mishkan.
The golden calf was an empty symbol, it was a literal ‘scapegoat’ for them to relinquish their responsibility and control. It had no purpose aside from to be worshipped and so acted as an idol, the building of which demeaned the people who did so. It has that in common with the building forced on the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, when they weren’t allowed to be a cohesive people, and their work was intended to strip them of any identity they held.
The Mishkan is the opposite; once built it will act as a community hub in and around which people will practise worship as a routine, a habit, and a way of life. The parashah sums up this distinction clearly in Exodus 25:8, when God tells his people “וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם” a line often translated as “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you” but the word “בְּתוֹכָֽם” can equally be translated as within rather than among. I like to read this line as describing how the work of building the mishkan, as a community, will unite the Jewish people and make God a part of each individual as well as a part of the community. The work of the mishkan is distinct from the work done in slavery because it is holy work, elevating work, and the kind of work that brings God among the people.
This distinction between demeaning work and elevating work is one I think about often outside of Torah study, especially with midterms season upon us. I spend a lot of hours studying for exams, and there are certainly days where it feels more like forced labour than work towards a meaningful goal, but it helps me to remember the “why”. For me, that’s the hope of being able to make meaningful change in the world, and understanding the beauty that exists in the structure of the universe on a larger scale, that’s what draws me to physics. It’s not about an exam grade, it’s about my awe at the wonder of what’s out there, and my belief in the communities I work in to find meaning and answers together. At some level, that’s not so different from religious faith, which may explain why there are so many Jewish physicists.
Ultimately, the nature of work and its virtues and detriments comes down to whether it’s in service to meaningful values or dead ends. Parashat Terumah asks us to direct our work so that we can be sure that we’re building a mishkan instead of a golden calf.
Student, Queen’s Hillel