Imagine in the midst of this year’s unusually interesting presidential campaign that one candidate proposes a vast program to rebuild America’s entire transportation infrastructure—roads and bridges, highways and interstates, railroads and harbors. It’s a program even grander than NASA’s historic effort to land a man on the moon. And when a challenger asks the candidate how we’re going to pay for this massive undertaking, he or she says, “We’ll just take an offering!”
In a normal year, this candidate would be laughed off the stage, but this is exactly what is proposed for the building of the Mishkan in this week’s parasha, Exodus 25:1-27:19. The Mishkan is the portable dwelling for Adonai as he accompanies his people in their journey toward the Promised Land. The account of its elaborate construction out of gold and silver, precious fabrics and acacia wood, dominates the entire second half of the book of Exodus. In fact, this construction project is the culmination of the departure from Egypt. The driving reason that the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt was to serve him, and this is the place where that service happens.
All the more remarkable, then, that this vast project is to be supplied by voluntary offerings. As he begins his instructions for the Mishkan, the LORD tells Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel and let them raise up for me an offering; from every man whose heart moves him, you shall raise up my offering” (Exodus 25:1-2). This radical approach provides a sharp contrast with this week’s haftarah reading. There, when King Solomon set out to build the Temple, the successor to the Mishkan, he “imposed forced laborers from all Israel—the levy was 30,000 men” (1 Kings 5:27 [5:13]). Conscription, levies; that’s how public works get done. So why does Moses depend on a freewill offering?
This question is even sharper in light of the common rabbinic understanding that mandatory obedience is better than voluntary. In this view, it’s better to do a deed in obedience to a mitzvah than to do it just because you want to. Obedience to a mitzvah involves a degree of understanding and self-discipline that spontaneous action does not. It also, at least ideally, involves the same level of heart motivation that spontaneous action does. Therefore obedience involves more of the whole person in God’s service. Why, then, is the gathering of materials for the Mishkan left entirely up to voluntary action?
The Torah is teaching us an essential truth about serving the God of Israel.
Before our deliverance, “The Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with crushing hardness. They embittered their lives with hard servitude in mortar and in brick and in every servitude in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with crushing hardness” (1:13-14). In these two verses the root avad, service, labor, servitude, appears five times, and clearly refers to compulsory service.
When we retell the Passover story at the Seder, we lift our cups and recite, “He brought us out from servitude to freedom … Hallelujah!” Passover is called “the season of our freedom.” Torah, however, speaks not so much of freedom as of a change of servitude. We were serving Pharaoh, but the Lord commanded him, “Let my people go that they may serve me” (8:1). In the service of Pharaoh the Israelites were compelled to build the store-cities of Pithom and Raamses. In the service of Adonai they willingly build the Mishkan. The opposite of compulsory servitude is not freedom to do whatever, but willing servitude.
Freedom, our ancient story tells us, is not a matter of total autonomy, or the absence of any authority over our lives. Rather, freedom is servitude to the one true God, the one who is worthy to be served. We enter this freedom by serving willingly, as the Israelites did when each one contributed to the offering voluntarily, as his heart moved him – yidvenu libo.
The Hebrew here is instructive. The root of the verb yidvenu or “moved” is nadav, which also is the root for the noun “noble” or “prince.” The connection is clear: a nobleman is one who is free to act as he is moved, not under compulsion. He is not subject to hard labor and oppression, but neither does he live only for himself. Rather, he serves freely, offering his resources and his own self to the cause of a worthy master.
In most of its laws, including those of offerings, the Torah gives rather specific requirements. In this vital offering for a dwelling place for God, however, voluntary giving prevails. Thus, we see that service to the LORD is never oppressive or degrading, as is service to Pharaoh, but instead ennobling.
Yeshua built upon this truth when he stated, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Normally a yoke is an instrument of bondage, imposed upon a beast or a man against his will. Yeshua calls us to take the yoke of service voluntarily. Such a yoke he terms “my yoke”—a yoke that unites us to him. We will discover it to be not oppressive, but easy.
Freely yielding oneself to God is elevating; serving God instead of self is liberating.
The very name of our parasha, T’rumah, points to the same truth. This word refers to the offering itself. “Speak to the children of Israel and let them raise up for me an offering …” Its root is rum, “to be high, elevated; to rise up.” The offering is raised up to God, but it also raises up the offerer. Service to the God of Israel is elevating. Notably, in the account of building the temple in 1 Kings, the word t’rumah is absent. Solomon imposes forced labor. It looks like an efficient operation, the sort of thing that governments love to do. There’s no need for an offering, and therefore no opportunity to be elevated by the offering.
A final lesson: Moses’ instruction that “every man whose heart moves him” is to give focuses on the individual, as does Yeshua’s invitation to take on his yoke. But Scripture doesn’t stop at this individual response to God. Yeshua’s invitation to take on his yoke is to “all who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). The Mishkan is built through the efforts of all, the combined response of multitudes of willing hearts.
And they spoke to Moses saying, “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work which the Lord commanded to make.” And Moses gave command and they announced it throughout the camp, saying: “Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing. For the materials they had were sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much (36:5-7).
We gain spiritual freedom as we voluntarily serve God. This is the offering that elevates. It is not individual alone, but a service shared with all whose hearts move them to give. With such an offering we will build the dwelling that God assigns us.