Parashat Terumah

After the end of the Second World War, probably because humanity was staggered and horrified, most of the Western countries developed an economic system which was based on State interventionism. This actually started in the 1930s in the United States with President Roosevelt’s New Deal, built on the ideas of the economist John Maynard Keynes. The underlying principles were very generous and humanistic: the community had a duty to safeguard the poorest in its midst and protect them from extreme poverty, from disease, from loosing dignity. Hence the Welfare State in the United Kingdom and L’Etat Providence in France, not to mention the German social system, which used to be, until very recently, one of the most protective in the Western world.

But such systems have a price, and already in the 1940s, voices were heard challenging a social method supposedly modeled on Communist countries, and costing so much to society that it undermined the bases of freedom. This thesis was developed from the 1940s onwards, particularly in the Chicago School of Economy, run by Milton Friedman. Of course, at that stage, these ideas were in the minority.

Over the course of several decades, Milton Friedman’s disciples, the Chicago boys, were sent to South America when leftist governments were overthrown, like Chile in 1973. And they applied these new principles of an absolute free market. The main principle was very simple: the market had enough wisdom to regulate itself without State interventionism. There is an excellent book published in 2008 by Naomi Klein, The Schock Doctrine, which explains in depth this shift.

This was a shift, a new paradigm in managing public affairs. On the basis of such policies, Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 in this country, Ronald Reagan in 1980 across the ocean. It seemed to a lot of people that the previous system had outlived its usefulness, and that it was time to introduce more freedom and private funds in general affairs.

I am not trying to make a political manifesto for or against the huge shift we have been facing for more than 30 years. It has had some successes, and probably also a lot of failures: we live in a world dominated by the fantasy of economic growth, according to which each year should be better than the previous one, a world which has created wealth at a level never before reached, but also a world in which social inequality continues to widen.

The question is not: is this system good or bad? Should we vote Conservative or Labour? Right or Left? The question is probably deeper than such mundane considerations. The world is changing, that is not a scoop, and it is changing very quickly, apparently in opposite directions, where self-interest becomes more important than the common interest. What sort of world are we transmitting to future generations?  

The good news is that it is not quite as frightening as it seems at first glance. Some voices have to rise up. As progressive Jews, we have to speak loud, to speak up. We are blessed by being the recipients of an old tradition, which always has something to say to the world. We do not see the world as bad in itself, but rather as a place, which has to be constantly corrected and improved. What we call in tikkun olam, repairing the world.

And in our weekly Torah portion I see at least two reasons to hope against hope.

We read in Exodus 25:2: “Tell the Children of Israel to bring me terumah, gifts, offerings. You shall take the terumah from every person that gives it willingly with his heart”.

The Conservative Torah Commentary, Etz Hayim explains: “the word terumah comes from a root meaning ‘to elevate’. It can also imply that the act of offering a gift to God elevates the donor to a higher level as well”.

Of course, the setting of this verse is the building of the mishkan, the place where God will dwell amongst his people in the wilderness and which accompanies it during its wanderings.

Of course, It might be very naïve to think that people would give something by pure generosity! Therefore, this verse emphasizes collective responsibility and illustrates the rabbinic principle of kol Israel arevim zeh lezeh, every Jew is connected one to the other, and by capillary action, every human being is connected to the rest. If, as a community, as a society, or even as the human species we forget this, then we have no future. Our planet is a grain of sand in the entire universe, and unfortunately we tend to forget this, focused as we are on our selfish little problems.

The second reason to hope against hope is found later in the same chapter: “Let them build me a sanctuary, so I will dwell amongst them” (Exodus 25:8). This does not mean that God actually lives inside this limited space. The mishkan, literally the “indwelling” of the divine presence, acts as a reminder for Israel that there is a higher purpose than the tribulations they are going through in the wilderness. Moreover, the text explains with a lot of details the shape of this portable sanctuary, and this place becomes eventually the central point of the social life of the Children of Israel. Around the mishkan, the social structure and the hierarchy of the people are set. It becomes the place of inclusivity inclusiveness of all the people.

We need structures, boundaries, self-definitions, to create a safe space where we can easily identify who we are, as a mirror of our own identities: who am I? From where do I come? What am I heading towards?

But we need also this space to remain open, generous, elevated. That means that we should go beyond our limited selves towards the larger group to which we all belong, humanity. This requires a sense of terumah, a sense of gift, which we must offer willingly.

Rene Pfertzel
February 2012