Thursday, 11 Feb 2016

Written by Anna Posner

Since the Israelites left Egypt they have gone from being a community of slaves, and the identity that brings with it, to being a group of nomadic, freed people with individual choice. It is in the string of parashiyyot that tell this story that we see the potential for the Hebrew people form into a collective. The challenge that God and Moses face as the leaders of the group is to take this group of individuals and help them choose to be part of something bigger. To me, this is the real beginning of Jewish peoplehood and a lesson in building sustainable, intentional, community.

In the past I have been part of teams who have tried to build intentional communities with varying success. One project in particular was popular for a number of years, but without anyone else to take it on after the organisers needed to move on, the project collapsed. As community builders and people who choose to be active members of the Jewish world, is there something that we can learn from our parashah about how to ensure longevity of the communities we are part of?

I would argue that the foundations of an intentional community are a clear set of values and buy-in from its’ members. All the communities that I have been in have had a clear set of values and guidelines which act as their backbone and come through in everything they do.

In last week’s parashah, God gave Moses a list of laws detailing all aspects of life both moral and practical and offering a set of values and guidelines to help create a culture and framework for this new intentional community.These laws however are decided from the top down. God creates the rules; Moses must pass them on to the people. None the less, every community needs a starting point and having a strong leader with clear goals may have been the answer for the Israelite people who were lost and needed guidance. The key was having the Israelites feel ownership of the community and making the choice to part of it: I think this week’s parashah takes us to that next step.

At face value parashat Terumah looks merely like a list of instructions for how to build a flat pack tabernacle (mishkan) but if we look deeper we can see that these instructions and the act of building the mishkan) is exactly what the Israelites need to cement them into an intentional community that has longevity. 

God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to bring gifts which will be used to build the Tabernacle that God will dwell in. God says; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.’ Not only are no restrictions made for who is allowed to contribute to the building of the sanctuary, but God goes so far as to specify that anyone who is moved to do so can join, therefore highlighting that no one who wants to opt in to the community is to be excluded. Equally, it leaves room for those who do not want to opt in to opt out. It can be said that those who are ‘moved’ to bring gifts are those who have been moved to make themselves an active part of the community.

The Israelites are being asked to amalgamate their resources in order to come together and build a central structure for their community. By bringing their own possessions into the project, the Israelites feel ownership. Although the instructions are coming from God, via Moses, the building of the Tabernacle is a group project which, unlike the Laws in Mishpatim, the individuals in the community contribute to and choose to be a part of.

God and Moses have created the values for the community and enabled the Israelite people to buy-in and feel ownership but was this the key in sustaining the longevity of the project? The task of building the Mishkan will have brought the community together with a common purpose, giving them something physical that they created together to be a symbol of their community.

Often in our communities we have a building, or a Torah or a custom or some other physical marker that gives our space a common identity. The Israelites had not only words but a central object that they could tell stories about and pass down through the generations. Furthermore, the Hebrew people had a common history, the stories they shared whilst coming together to build the Tabernacle is a story that is told daily in our Jewish world today. I would argue however, that the key ingredient in longevity of the community of the people of Israel was the fact that everyone had a role and a purpose. Unlike the intentional community I was part of trying to create, where there was a team of organisers and participants who would come and go, God and Moses create a community where people have to be active and take ownership. To this day Jews are making decisions as to how they would like to engage with the Laws of Torah and stories of Torah and how to be engage (or not) in our Jewish world.

As people who choose to be active members of the Jewish world, we are constantly deciding which communities we opt in or out of. Just like the Israelites in the desert we make choices about what we want to bring to contribute to those communities and what role to we will play in order to sustain them. These decisions are happening in formal community and synagogue space but also in the intentional communities we create around us in our family, amongst our friends and with those of like mind. It is our enactment of these choices that helps to sustain our community and the wider Jewish world.

Student rabbi Anna Posner

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.