Terumah | The Foundation of a Civilised Society
Updated: Apr 22
This week’s portion talks about the construction of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan which contained a number of klei kodesh, special holy items. All of the artefacts of the Mishkan were there not only for beauty – though they were certainly beautifully constructed – but to convey a message to the people through their unique symbolism. For example, the Holy Ark which contains the Tablets with the Ten Commandments represents the value of learning Torah. The Menorah, the Candelabrum, represents the light and wisdom of the Torah.
One of the items in the Sanctuary was the Shulchan, the Table, a special table that was to be placed in the holy section of the Mishkan together with the Menorah, the Candelabrum, and the Mizbach haZahav, the Golden Altar used for incense. The Table, is symbolic of material wealth and prosperity, but also symbolises the moral ties that hold society together.
The message of the Table in the Tabernacle
The parsha says “and you shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits in length, one cubit in width, and a cubit-and-a-half in height. You shall cover it with pure gold and you shall make for it a gold crown all around.” The Table is made of acacia wood; it is a relatively a small table – a cubit is roughly a half a metre – and the top part of the table is covered with gold. It also has a golden crown that runs around it. On top of the table were placed the Lechem haPanim, the twelve loaves of Showbread that were changed every week. The loaves were piled up in two large stacks – six each – on top of the Table.
The Table contains a very important message. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators and philosophers from the 19th century, explains that the Table represents material prosperity. It was made of acacia wood and had a gold top. The wood – a growing and developing substance – represents financial prosperity, and material and physical well-being. The gold represents firmness of principle. It is solid, unmoving, unwavering and pure – as the verse states, Zahav Tahor, pure gold. This represents the immovable principles of right and wrong.
Together, the gold and the wood represent the idea that material prosperity has to be based on the ethical and moral principles that G-d has given us. This is demonstrated by the gold crown as well: it surrounds the table and holds it, symbolising that material and physical prosperity and success must be confined within the bounds of right and wrong.
Society’s economy must be based on ethical and moral business practices
In every society, in every economy, the starting point, from the perspective of Judaism, must be ethics and morality. No society can be built on corruption, theft, or wrong-doing; people must be held accountable for their actions. The basis of any economy, even from a financial point of view, is morality and ethical business conduct. We see this clearly in our day, how unethical practices cannot support a society’s economy; much of the recent financial crash was precipitated, according to many experts, by a lack of restraint and moral conduct which led to the collapse of so many different markets and businesses because people had overextended themselves and dealt unethically with their investors’ money.
The underpinning of any economy must be morality and ethical conduct. This applies not only on the macro level but on the micro level as well. When a person goes out into the world to earn a living, the starting point must be that everything he does to earn a living be in accordance with the moral and ethical principles that G-d has given us. For example, being bound by one’s word and keeping promises made; or, if one promises certain things regarding merchandise, does the merchandise really deliver what one claims it does?
These are but two examples of the many scenarios in Jewish business ethics. In fact, a major branch of Jewish law in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, is Choshen Mishpat, which deals with all monetary laws, contract laws, delict and interpersonal actions keeping society functioning optimally. This section of Choshen Mishpat is known to be one of the most difficult sections of the Code of Jewish Law, in terms of its depth and the complex thought processes required to master these difficult concepts.
The intricacies of human relationships and the financial arrangements are often very complicated. At times, they are also difficult to implement; sometimes people find it very easy to fulfil the commandments between themselves and G-d but money poses much more of a challenge to them. Ethical and moral dealings in business have to be part of the very foundations of the pursuit of earning a living; one has to earn a living honestly.
To earn an honest living independently is to fulfil a great commandment of G-d. It allows a person and his family – if so blessed by G-d – to be able to live with dignity. But the very foundation of it has to be morality and ethical conduct in accordance with these G-d-given principles.
We must support each other
There is another aspect to this symbolism. The Table had two stacks of Showbread loaves, stacked one on top of the other, six on the one sideboard and six on the other. Rabbi Hirsch explains that this stacking of the loaves contains a very important lesson. The bread was designed in such a way that each loaf could carry the loaf above it. An ordinary loaf of bread has a rounded top; one cannot pile up too many loaves in this fashion because they would fall. The loaves of Showbread, however, were rectangular, with flat tops, designed in such a way that each loaf supported the one above it.
The difference between charity and giving tzedakah
As we know, one of the most important mitzvahs that we have is the commandment of tzedakah. How much tzedakah we wish to give is not up to our discretion; a minimum of ten percent (and we are allowed to give up to twenty percent) of disposable income must be set aside for the purpose of giving charity. The English word charity implies that giving tzedakah is a charitable act. However the Hebrew word tzedakah comes from the word tzedek, which means justice. This reflects Judaism’s philosophy that justice demands that those who have give to those who do not. It is not just a question of being “charitable” or being a “nice person.” Of course it is a nice thing to do, but it is more than that; it is required and absolutely necessary. A person who does not give tzedakah is not only being uncharitable or unkind but is actually regarded as evil. The Talmud describes a person who does not give the required amount of tzedakah as evil.
We cannot simply pursue our own interests, as justifiable as it is to earn a living. We have to help and support others and make a difference to the greater good of society. In order for any society to function normally, it has to be based on one human being supporting another. This is not only in the realm of monetary assistance, in giving tzedakah, but in other areas of kindness; there are many ways each of us can contribute to society as a whole.
G-d is the ultimate provider
These two concepts – earning an honest living through ethical business conduct and helping the less fortunate – are actually connected. The gold represents the firm principles which must constrain the growth of the wood, which represents material prosperity; the piles of bread represent supporting one another and the commandment to help others and give charity. Both of these are connected to one core belief: the source of all sustenance is G-d; as we say in benching, the special grace after meals we say after eating bread, hazan et ha’olam kulo b’tuvo, that G-d “sustains and provides food and sustenance for the whole world.” All that we have comes from G-d, and because it all comes from Him we have to behave ethically with our resources because they are not really ours, but His; He wants us to be kind and give to others.
Given that G-d is the source of all our sustenance, we are not going to achieve more by being unethical or selfishly withholding our money and resources. Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, G-d decrees how much will be allocated to each of us. The commentaries explain that it cannot be that G-d allocated that amount with the intention that we get it through unethical means or through withholding charity. Rather, the amount He allocated to us is predetermined, and if we do with it as we are supposed to, we are guaranteed that that amount will not be diminished.
Giving charity will never diminish what we have, only increase it
It is interesting to note that tzedakah is actually the one area where we are allowed to test G-d. The Talmud says that although we are not allowed to test G-d, tzedakah is the one area where we are actually allowed to test Him. As G-d says in the book of Malachi (3: 10), bechanuni na b’zot, “test Me in this [tzedakah].” There is a guarantee that a person who gives money to charity will get that money back from G-d somehow and it will increase even more.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop, one of the great leaders of Lithuanian Jewry during the early part of the 20th century, says that the reason there is such a guarantee is because G-d gave us the money in the first place in order to distribute it. Everything that we have, all the resources and goodness – whether it is financial wealth, talents or other things that G-d has given to us – were given to us so that we would share it with others. The more that we fulfil His will in sharing these with others, the more He is going to want to give to us because that is why He gave it to us in the first place.
Of course, in this world, sometimes very saintly people are poor and sometimes very wicked people are wealthy. These anomalies are attributable to other factors that G-d has to take into account, factors that are beyond human comprehension. But there is a guarantee that poverty will never be caused by the giving of charity, and wealth will never be the result of holding onto one’s money and not giving tzedakah. We will never lose by giving, we will only gain. That is a guarantee that we have received through our Oral Tradition. It is built on the fact that G-d is the originator of all sustenance. We therefore must behave ethically with it, and must be willing to give with it.
Each human being is unique and must be treated as an individual
But this is not the full picture of the Table. In addition to everything described above, there were tubes between the two sides of each sideboard. Each loaf was supporting the one above it, but there was tubing in between. According to Talmudic tradition, the tubing which ran from one side of each sideboard to the other was there for two reasons: the first reason was to prevent the top loaf from crushing the loaf beneath it, and the second reason was to provide air so that mould would not grow on the bread. The loaves were changed once a week, but in order for them to stay as fresh as possible during the course of that week there was piping that ran from the one side to the other.
Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbolism of this tubing as follows: although we are required to support one another, to give and contribute to society as a whole, there still has to be a concept of individual rights. We cannot have a society where individual people are crushed by the whole. In other words, when we talk about a system of charity, a system whereby those who have help those who do not have, we are not talking about a system of communism, where individuality is crushed and everyone becomes a tiny cog in a massive construction of society.
Judaism maintains that every single individual is sacred and unique. As the Talmud states, a person is required to say bishvili nivra ha’olam, “the world was created for me.” The Talmud further states that “he who destroys one life it is as if he has destroyed the entire world, and he who saves one life it is as if he has saved the entire world.” Judaism values the importance of the individual, and not just as an individual comprising society; each and every individual is an integral, unique part of society, valued in his own right. He stands separately from the rest of society and yet he must give to society.
Although each loaf supported the loaves above it, each loaf was also separated from the loaves above it. They were not just piled up; there was a separation so that the top loaves did not crush those beneath them and also so that there would not be mould that would destroy them because they were too close.
We function as individuals and as a collective society
Human beings have to be treated as separate entities, accorded individual rights and acknowledged as special, unique contributors. No two people are the same; each person is an entire world unto himself. We cannot take all of society and conflate it into one amorphous whole where individuality does not exist. Each person must be given breathing space to live as an individual fulfilling his own mission on this earth. And yet, each individual has to help others and contribute to society as a whole.
The Table, made of wood and gold, with stacks of Showbread on it, demonstrates how society should function: with firm moral and ethical principles, as represented by the gold constraining the wood which symbolises prosperity and material success. The loaves stacked one on top of another represent society being dependent on people supporting one another, and that we have an obligation to give charity, to be kind, and to make a difference. The tubing running between the two sides represents that although we are obligated to contribute to society as a whole, we must still regard each person as an individual, distinct from society, and allow them breathing space so they are not crushed by others.
This is a very important model, not only for society as a whole, but for all of the mini communities in our lives: a school, a shul, or a family unit. People have to support one another. Loyal members of a family support one another, and loyal members of a shul or a school support one another. Yet there has to be separation, where each person is regarded as an individual. Every child in a family is separate and must be treated as an individual. The individuality has to be respected and nurtured because it is from the greatness of the individual that the greatness of society flourishes. At the same time, it is from the generosity, kindness, commitment and the bonds between people that society thrives. These two values have to be in balance in order for society to function optimally.