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Blending Torah and Activism (Pekudey, Exodus 38:21-40-38)

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I am a scholar and teacher, having devoted much of my life to shaping a Judaism that will work both for me and for others in our contemporary world. I have one sibling, my sister Paula, who works in international peacebuilding, especially in Asia and Africa. Recently, I received an email she sent from Addis Ababa, where she was meeting with a group of women from war-torn South Sudan. I shared it with a few students who I knew would have a special interest in it. One of them wrote back: "Wow! How could I have a career that combines both yours and hers?"

It's not easy. Over the years, I have had quite a few students torn by this question. What should I do with my life? I love studying and teaching Torah, but I need to be more of an activist, to do more to save the world. Cultivating the spirit is important, but is there time to do it while the world is on fire?

The building of the tabernacle, coming to its grand conclusion in this week's Torah portion, is taken by commentators to represent the totality of God's work that needs to be done in the world. "Six days shall work be done (Ex. 35:2)," said of the tabernacle, refers to all the "mel'akhah," the constructive labor, in which we engage throughout our lives.

The tabernacle was built, you will recall, through the voluntary efforts of the people. They brought a great variety of gifts: gold, silver, copper, skins, dyes, material for curtains and lots more. This great variety of giving led one author, the 18th century Moroccan rabbi Hayyim Ibn Attar, to reflect on the entirety of Jewish living through the prism of this moment when the tabernacle was completed.

He suggests that Torah was given to us as a community, not just as individuals. There is no person who can fulfill all the 613 commandments. Some bring one "gift" to the tent of Torah, others bring another. Some commandments, he says, apply only to priests or Levites, some only to other Israelites. There are commandments given to men and others only to women. There are many commandments, we might add, that applied only when the Temple was standing, or only in the Land of Israel. How then do we fulfill the Torah? We can do so only collectively, by sharing the merits of our good deeds with one another. "The Children of Israel" -- as a group -- "did all that Y-H-W-H had commanded Moses (Ex. 28:32)."

This notion of collective fulfillment of our human obligation can lead to either good news or bad. Taken at its best, there is a lovely ideal here. Each of us does what we can, perhaps what we do best. There are Hasidic teachings that talk about the need, while living fully within Torah, to seek our your own special good deed, the one you love most and do with special devotion. The extra blessing of that good deed radiates out to all those around you, perhaps even to your whole generation; your example serves to uplift others. Our traditional communities have always produced such "specialists" who become expert in such deeds as feeding the hungry, welcoming guests, visiting the sick or attending to the dying.

But there can also be a negative side to overspecialization in the realm of doing good. We have a whole crop of ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students in Israel who say, "My mitzvah is studying Torah. That is doing quite enough. Let somebody else defend the country."

We have a world of Jewish do-gooders who say, "I am working for human rights. That's my Judaism. I don't need to observe."

Or we have pietists who pray three times a day while earning their livelihood as slumlords. "I'll do the praying; let someone else worry about the poor."

The Moroccan sage may have understood this danger, because he insisted that this collective fulfillment of the Torah depended on one more thing -- and that was love.

Torah was given to be fulfilled by the collective of Israel, all in accord with their own abilities. They will then give that merit to one another. Perhaps this is the meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love him because he is like you; his welfare will be good for you as well. It is only through him or her that you will be fulfilled. In that case, your neighbor is in fact no other, but your very own self, a part of you.

All of us are siblings, and perhaps more, together doing the work needed to make our world a better place. But we share that work only through love. That means thinking and caring about all those others who are bringing their many varied gifts to our shared tabernacle. None of us alone can complete even our own tasks in this world. But together, joined by open hearts and mutual appreciation for all we do and give, we can create overwhelming bounty.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.