A Temple For All – Parashat Ki Tissa 5783

Cantor Dara Sage Rosenblatt and I prepare to lead our first Friday evening service in Temple Beth-El’s newly renovated Sanctuary (photo credit: Damien Timms)

We usually think about human progress as the story of individuals – usually white men, if we’re being honest – that create major breakthroughs or innovations that revolutionize the way the world works: think of Edison and the light bulb, the Wright brothers and the airplane, Ford and the Model T, or Salk and the polio vaccine. But it turns out that this “Eureka Theory of History,” as journalist Derek Thompson recently called it, is actually totally wrong. Throughout history, virtually every major innovation that ended up changing the world involved, on the front end, the hard work and contributions of countless individuals; and, on the back end, a large enough group willing to adopt the innovation. It doesn’t matter what one person discovers or invents if people are ultimately unwilling to embrace it, which is precisely why it took humanity so long to eradicate smallpox, despite the fact that the smallpox vaccine was invented more than a century and a half before it was widely adopted. Innovation is certainly important, but progress only happens when people embrace it.

Something similar is at play in this week’s parashah. Parashat Ki Tissa begins with God instructing Moses to conduct a census, counting every man eligible for army conscription; in other words, those ages 20 and up. In biblical terms, that’s essentially the same as saying to count every household. According to several of the traditional commentators, the purpose of this census was less about taking a head count and more about raising funds. That helps explain why God instructs Moses to take the census in such a strange manner – by collecting a half-shekel from each person and then counting the coins, rather than by simply counting the people directly. The point of the count was to collect the money, not to determine the size of the population.

But this explanation only raises additional questions. Why levy this tax, why now, and why under the guise of a census? With respect to the first two questions – why levy this tax, and why now – it’s important to consider the placement of our parashah in the context of the Torah’s larger narrative: Following the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, God commands the Israelites to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle or portable sanctuary. For many commentators, the context makes the purpose of the half-shekel tax seem obvious – the money was to be used for the Tabernacle. 

The problem with this explanation, however, is that God already asked the Israelites to contribute to the Tabernacle back in Exodus chapter 25, when God originally commissioned the construction of the portable sanctuary. That parashah is even called “Terumah,” the biblical term for a sacred contribution! If the people had already been told to donate to the capital campaign, why levy an additional tax for the same purpose? 

Of course, one possible answer is that the initial round of fundraising was insufficient to the need. But the Torah itself a few chapters later will tell us precisely the opposite – that the Israelites voluntarily brought much more than was actually needed to construct the Tabernacle (Ex. 36:5-7)! Moreover, a half-shekel is a pretty small amount of money; it had to have been, since the Torah specifically describes it as an amount that even a poor person could afford (Ex. 30:15). So not only are the people commanded to contribute to the Tabernacle a seemingly unnecessary second time, they are also commanded to bring an amount that presumably would have made very little practical difference to the outcome of the project itself.

But what if the whole point was the universal affordability of a half-shekel contribution? After all, a person of modest means might naturally hesitate about contributing to a capital campaign, especially for a project like building a Tabernacle. Giving up precious resources to build a portable sanctuary is not likely to be a priority to the person struggling to make ends meet. And given that the initial fundraising was so successful that it produced a surplus, one can easily imagine poorer Israelites feeling that their modest contributions would have been unnecessary in any case. Who would choose to help build a Tabernacle if doing so would make it harder to feed their family, especially if they knew their contribution wouldn’t really make much of a difference at all? 

The problem with this dynamic is that the Tabernacle was intended to be for the whole Israelite community: a physical reminder that God was perpetually present in their midst, a place that anyone earnestly seeking spiritual connection could access, and experience intimacy with, the Divine. If the only people who contributed to the construction of such a space were the wealthiest Israelites, then many – both the rich donors who bankrolled the project and the poorer Israelites who felt parting with their meager means wouldn’t make enough of a difference to matter – might naturally feel that the Tabernacle belonged only to those who could afford to get their names emblazoned on a wall. 

In a related sense, wealthy individuals who contributed a lot to the initial capital campaign might have felt that they had fulfilled their obligations vis a vis the project, and were therefore exempt from any future involvement with the Tabernacle. But for the Tabernacle to actually serve its intended purpose, every Israelite had to feel an ongoing sense of ownership over it. God therefore needed every single Israelite, regardless of the size of their bank accounts, to contribute equally to its construction and operation, whether for the first time, or in addition to what they had already contributed. 

Something similar is at work a little further on in the parashah. At the beginning of chapter 31, God singles out a person named Betzalel ben Uri to lead the work of actually constructing the Tabernacle, explaining that Betzalel possessed “skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” necessary to implement the designs laid out in the preceding chapters. But then God also appoints a person named Ohaliav ben Ahisamakh, as well as “every wise-hearted person,” to work alongside Betzalel. If Betzalel was so extraordinarily gifted, why did he need all these partners? According to a midrashic tradition, it’s because Betzalel hailed from the tribe of Judah, which was the largest and arguably the most significant of the twelve tribes. If a Judahite was singularly responsible for the construction of the Tabernacle, then many might feel that the Tabernacle belonged more to those from large, prominent tribes than to those from smaller, more peripheral ones, like the tribe of Dan. Therefore, God assigns Ohaliav, a Danite, as Betzalel’s partner, and also instructs every Israelite who is willing and able to join in the work, symbolically affirming that the Tabernacle belonged to the entire community, not just to one privileged segment. A sanctuary that truly belongs to everyone requires everyone’s investment and involvement. 

What was true of the ancient Tabernacle also holds for modern sanctuaries, including our own. Just as the Tabernacle couldn’t fulfill its intended function without the participation of the whole community, this renewed sacred space requires all of us for it to truly serve the purpose for which it was redesigned and refurbished. 

With all the focus that has understandably been placed on the mechanics of our extraordinary renovation project – raising the necessary funds, monitoring the progress of the construction, navigating the logistical hassles and inconveniences of being temporarily displaced from our building – it is easy to lose sight of the reason we undertook this initiative in the first place. That means not only considering what we envisioned for a renewed Temple Beth-El Grove Avenue campus but more importantly remembering why we envisioned it the way we did in the first place. 

So I actually went back and reviewed the document in which lay leaders and I initially outlined a vision for a revitalized, 21st century Temple Beth-El campus at Grove Ave. I was amazed to discover that, between inception and implementation, our initial vision has stayed remarkably consistent. We of course knew that we would need to make significant improvements to our infrastructure – our roofing, plumbing, electric wiring, HVAC system, and the like – for our space to remain basically functional. We have actually needed these improvements for decades, and for various reasons we have always had to put them off. 

But beyond these practical improvements, we envisioned a campus that exudes our community’s passion for dynamic Jewish life: a space that honors our past while boldly stepping into our future, and moreover that reflects our congregation’s commitment to nurturing an inclusive, supportive, and deeply intertwined community – a space that was totally accessible for people of all abilities and disabilities, and that facilitated connections among congregants of all backgrounds, ages, and stages. That’s why, for example, we lowered our bimah and made it fully handicap-accessible, created flexible space at the front of the sanctuary for more intimate gatherings, and built our “prayground” – a special space for young children and their grown-ups at the rear of the sanctuary. And it’s why, when all phases of the project are ultimately completed this summer, all our entrances and restrooms will be fully accessible for congregants of all abilities and disabilities, we will have two all-gender restrooms, and our new atrium and social hall will provide congregants and guests with space that better facilitates connection and relationship-building.

Like the ancient Tabernacle, our renewed sacred space was designed with our entire community in mind, and intended to be a space that better enables all of us to deepen our relationships with each other and our faith. The catch to all of this is that, like the ancient Tabernacle, our newly refurbished Temple needs all of us for it to truly serve its intended purpose. It’s not enough to build the thing. A Temple that truly belongs to all of us requires everyone’s ongoing investment and involvement.

This fact means that even those of us who were deeply involved in the process of designing and executing the vision, or who made significant financial contributions to make that vision a reality, have not fulfilled our obligations through those past actions, however generous or extraordinary those actions may have been. If you contributed generously to make this vision a reality, words cannot describe how grateful we are for your involvement; this project literally couldn’t have been possible without your support. However, it’s not enough to simply have your name emblazoned on a wall. We also need to see your face here. 

Similarly, all of us, regardless of the extent of our previous engagements with this project, must commit to embracing the purpose for which this space was intended. Unless we all perpetually show up here for one another in order to deepen our connections with that which is deepest within us, woven between us, and greatest beyond us, we have not fulfilled our obligations. The promise of this place is that it is for each and every one of us, our entire community. But only our actions individually and collectively can ensure that promise is upheld. 

Ultimately, what is important about our renewed building is not the ingenuity or beauty of its design. What’s important is whether and how we embrace and utilize it. As we celebrate this extraordinary milestone in the history of our congregation, let us remember that this beautiful place is for all of us. And a Temple that truly belongs to all of us requires us to rededicate ourselves to be invested and involved in the ongoing work of bringing that vision to fruition – for our next 90 years, and beyond.

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