In this week’s Torah portion of Terumah, the people of Israel are called upon to contribute materials for the construction of the Tabernacle – a sanctuary where God will “dwell” amidst the Jewish people. The instruction follows on the heels of last week’s portion, Mishpatim, in which the Torah enjoins us to be charitable to the poor and to extend financial loans to those in need.
Why, after already having outlined the socially responsible behavior of Mishpatim, did the Torah find it necessary to include the call for Tabernacle donations – a singular, historical event – in the eternal message of the Torah? What timeless guidelines are established here?
The fundamental difference between them is that Mishpatim relates to our social obligations while Terumah relates to our direct obligations to God. The implication is that while our charitable obligations to the poor are of the highest order, our charity is incomplete without an overarching structure in which charity is understood to be a vehicle for the creation of a “Godly” world.
Charity is not just a vehicle for the dispensation of “social justice.” The essence of charity is the secure equilibrium it establishes by focusing us on our mission to create a “dwelling for God” on Earth. This moment-by-moment awareness of our “higher purpose” lends perspective on a healthy “give-and-take” relationship with the world around us, one that balances consumption and giving, and enables long-term prosperity and stability.
The failure within our society – both of giver and recipient – to fully internalize this idea is partially responsible for the ongoing economic crisis.
With the ready availability of capital, our economy was driven by an excess of consumerism i.e., takers. Consumers of all shapes and sizes – an overwhelming many who were un-deserving – lined up in droves to tap lines of credit with astounding ease, leading to an unprecedented spending binge. An economy driven by hyper-consumerism is not sustainable in the long-term. The consumers lacked perspective on the balance of giving and taking, irresponsibly overlooking their inability to repay these loans.
There has also been an unprecedented amount of well-intentioned charitable giving – most notably that of our government, which pushed lenders (who over-exceeded their mandate) to enable millions to realize the American dream of home ownership. Reverse mortgages appear charitable too!
Social justice will succeed in the context of a healthy give-and-take relationship, one which does not overlook the responsibility of takers and givers to concern themselves with the entire panorama of “God’s dwelling” and not only the narrow need of here and now.
This is why the snake represents the antithesis of holiness in the Garden of Eden drama. The snake’s consumption is disproportionate to its excretion. It lacks the inner balance so vital for lasting progress.