Leading in the Image of God

TERUMAH (EXODUS 21:1−24:18)
17 February 2018 / 2 Adar 5778

Dedicated in Memory of Joe Soete (z”l) and  40 Legends

Parsha Summary

God instructs Moses to collect gifts from the Israelites in order to build a Tabernacle so that God can dwell among the people; God describes to Moses the vessels and structures that comprise the Tabernacle. (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19)

You might think I could get through reading about the instructions for Israelites to build the mishkan – the tabernacle – without crying. Okay, so there are all the details: acacia wood and curtains and poles and cubits . . . lots and lots of exacting details. Not so emotional. On the surface, for some of us, maybe it’s not even all that interesting.   

But this is also another moment that transformed the Israelites.

This is when God turned to them – to us – and said, “Hey. Let’s build something . . . together.” 

And this whining, dancing, whinging, hopeful, complaining people . . . did.

During the entire construction of the tabernacle, there were no complaints. The people contributed. Some brought gold, and some bronze. Some brought skins, and some drapes. Some gave their time and some their skill. Each gave whatever they had and it was all valued. They gave so much that Moses had to order them to stop giving. What did they receive in return? Dignity? Sense of purpose? Creative outlet? For sure, they received community and partnership with God. 

Check it out. It’s not the miracles. It’s not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do together with God. Sometimes, it’s even what we think we have done for ourselves, and then realize we didn’t actually do it alone. 

I was sixteen. My eyes paused as I looked around the dining hall settling on the wood tables and benches, the cleverly cabin-by-cabin made signs on the wooden walls, the faces of camp counselors I respected and admired, and Caesar’s hands. His freckled hands were both expressive and still. Caesar, also known as Joe Soete (z”l), the founder and director of 40 Legends. 40 Legends: A summer camp in Washington, MO where the Board of Directors was made up of the legendary Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle and Alice in Wonderland and their associates. I was a counselor-in-training, a CIT, that complicated role between camper and staff. Over the days of staff training, I would learn the philosophy and methodology behind the experiences I had been having every summer for the past seven years. I didn’t know that yet, though. It was the beginning of the first day. 

“We are the leaders,” said Caesar. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. A good leader talks little, and when his work is done, his goals met, the people will say, ‘we did this ourselves.’” He paused and looked around the room. 

He looked at me. 

I thought about all I had done myself and with my peers over the past seven summers: Passing swimming tests and going on canoe trips, building fires – even in the rain, making rope, learning to blacksmith enough to make a candle holder, keeping our cabin and composting toilets cared for, washing laundry in ringer washing machines and laying it out in the sun to dry, drawing up water from a well, finding a cedar log and carving it into a cedar bowl, being afraid of heights and rock climbing anyway, experiencing a “solo” – 24-hours alone in the woods . . . I had learned so much from all I had experienced and accomplished. We had, the other campers and I. I looked around the room at the counselors and staff, I looked at Caesar, and I looked back again at the past seven summers. In that moment, they changed. I changed. 

I wrote them down, Caesar’s words. I memorized them. 

This morning, as I read Terumah and thought about the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle, that moment twenty-six years ago came to mind like it was yesterday. Missing him extra . . . I don’t know why, but . . . I looked up Caesar’s obituary. As is happens, today is his yahrtzeit – the anniversary of his death. He died on February 12, 2005. He was only 70, and of all of the legends associated with camp, he was always my favorite. 

I typed the statement on leadership into the search bar and discovered it was first said by Lao Tzu and written in the Tao Te Ching in about the 6th century B.C.E. I smiled because the Internet is a long way from 40 Legends where there was no electricity in our cabins. What I called a summer camp, my . . . I have to laugh, he was such a committed Catholic, but in so many ways he was also my first rabbi . . . so my teacher, Caesar, called 40 Legends “a community of children and adults learning together, and from each other." My search for his words taught me that Lao Tzu also wrote that “being loved deeply by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage” and “one with outer courage dares to die; while one with inner courage dares to live.” Caesar acquired so much strength and courage in his life, and if anyone has ever learned anything about leadership or living life from me, you have also learned it from him. 

If ever there were leaders in our story, God is a leader, and so is Moses. In our tradition, the aim of the leaders is for the people to be invested participants. As long as every crisis was handled by Moses and miracles, the Israelites complained. They were only dependents, and complaining was their default. For them to grow into partnership, they needed to transition from being passive recipients into active co-creators. They needed to learn how to become builders.

The Talmud teaches that our job is to be God’s partners in creation. (Shabbat 10a.) Partners, and yet God is always calling us “b’nei” – children. Even here in Terumah, “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:3)

As the descendants of our ancestors we are also called children in Isaiah,  “And all your children shall be disciples of Adonai, and great will be the happiness of your children.” (54:13)

But if we look to Berachot 64a, we see that verse from Isaiah interpreted with art – that is, homiletically – not as children, but as builders, playing on the word for children and changing the first vowel so it reads “bonayich” – your builders, instead of “banayich” – your children.   

I will always be the child of my mother, but as a 43-year-old adult, I am also that awkward and wonderful phrase, an “adult child.” In the moment of becoming b’nei mitzvah we are both a child of the commandment and accepting our responsibility as adults in our community. Similarly, in relationship with God, we can be God’s children, and also God’s builders. 

Terumah teaches that one of the greatest opportunities in leadership is the discretion to invite those we guide to share and participate. To co-create. In the beginning, Genesis opens with God creating the universe as a home for human beings. We learn to be human and we learn to live in families. In Exodus, we become a people, and in the last chapters of Exodus we human beings are invited to create the Mishkan as a ‘home’ for God. Sure God gives detailed instruction, but the Mishkan is built through collaboration. We are made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image in so many ways, and also in this one. 

In Hebrew, the root for leadership – manhigut – is nun-hay-gimmel. The same root finds its place in hitnahagut – behavior. In Judaism, we do not become leaders by attaining a position or taking on a title. We become leaders through our actions and choices. We become leaders by guiding others to do for themselves. 

In retrospect, that moment at 16 was a pivot point in my life from child to adult as well as from participant to leader. The experiences I had treasured as personal accomplishments were, in fact, joint efforts. I could be proud of what I had done with opportunities I had been given, but my accomplishments were possible only because of the community I was in, the intentional leadership of the outstanding human beings who had guided me, and of the person – Caesar – who guided them.  

In Terumah, and in much of the rest of the Torah, God is portrayed as an imperfect leader leading an imperfect people. Imperfect measured by Lao Tzu’s words, and by my own assessment. I appreciate that. I loved and admired Caesar as a leader not because his was an example of perfect leadership, but because of his deep and sincere commitment to being a good leader – a leader whose goal was for people to be able to do for themselves – and his faith that the day would come when those he had lead would realize that for all that they deserved to have pride in their accomplishments none of us accomplish anything alone.