Terumah’s Rules for Radicals

As we move into the second month of the current presidential administration, it has become readily apparent to those of us engaged in the struggle for justice, equality, and human dignity that this will not be a quick or easy battle. These fights are always hard, and long, and come with a dozen defeats before they yield but a single victory. But, in the end, they are worth it.

This week’s parshah of Terumah has many details and many facets. But, writ large, it contains pearls of wisdom for activists to remember as they gather, and plan, and struggle, and debate the course ahead.

1. Be detail-oriented.

Many activists woke up on November 9 in mourning and panic. All of it was natural. But all of it was also reactive. For movements of change to be effective and successful, they need a plan. Terumah is a beautifully constructed, highly organized, intricately conceived parshah about crafting hundreds of items and materials into a perfectly functional structure, the tabernacle or ‘mishkan’, in order to serve a most holy purpose. From the details that the “drapes should be 28 amot long and 4 amot wide” (Exodus 26:2) to the mention that “There shall be fifty loops on the edge of each drape” (26:5), and the rule “Each plank shall have two square pegs exactly parallel to each other” (26:17), everything is meant to be precise and well organized.

That’s how organizers need to be as well. Coordinating an action requires careful planning and thought. Who has the power to effect change, and what message are they receptive to? Who is being invited into the coalition to make change? What will connect and engage participants to stay in the fight after the signs have been tucked away? Each action needs a plan, and each plan needs to be strategically linked to something coming up next. And each local action must be connected to something larger and nationwide.

2. Place the law at the center.

We are Jews. And that means that the center of every fight and every cause is Torah. And not in some tacked-on, by-the-way, let-me-throw-a-pasuk-in-to-grant-this-argument-authenticity kind of way. Our moral authority must emanate from the Torah in an authentic manner. The method and means to creating and maintaining a just nation comes from the text, the law, its commentaries, and its ethics.

Twice in parshat Terumah, in Exodus 25:16 and again in 25:21, we are told that the ark and the tablets lie at the center of all of the drapes, poles, pillars, and finery. The tabernacle, with all its detail, is just window dressing for the core of our religion: the Torah.

That means our justification for an important cause cannot simply be achieved by utilizing oft-treaded quotes like ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ or ‘Justice Justice shall you pursue.’ The Torah, Prophets, and Writings have enough experience with those ‘who turn judgment to wormwood, and cast righteousness to the ground’ (Amos 5:7) in all its myriad forms. The commandments are our candle; the Torah is our guiding light.

3. Be collaborative—share the responsibility, and the accolades.

Planning and organizing requires a difficult balance of pure chutzpah—the belief, beyond any evidence, that something can be done—and great humility, letting others take credit. Movements of social change rise and fall on the hard work and selflessness of myriads of people, many of whom don’t make it into the newspapers. This makes them sustainable for the long haul, since the departure of individuals can be offset with new leaders emerging from within the organization.

In Exodus 25:2, we see that constructing the Tabernacle requires that every person give Terumah, their own offering. On this verse, Reb Levi Yitzhok of Berditchev teaches “Every person is obligated to serve God in deed and thought. On account of a person’s pure intention and holy thought do they draw out holiness from nothing. This deed is a person’s gift to God, and in doing so, they elevate themselves.” Everyone together contributes, and it serves the greater good, and God.

4. Be beautiful and creative.

The tabernacle was beautiful; the work of artisans and craftspeople. We are told it was made of gold, silver, copper, and draped in blues and reds and crimsons and fine linen.

Our work at supporting justice and raising awareness of important social issues should be creative and bold and beautiful, too. We should write new songs and use poetry and dance and drama and art and street theater to capture the imagination and inspire people to act. We need to think out of the box to create totally unique forms of protest and expression, to shine light on the darkness in our world and make justice roll like the waters.

And when we build it, it will serve to redeem and elevate us all.