The freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing is of paramount importance to modern-day Americans. It is not a right to be taken for granted, since historically, it was often not afforded to people. However, our modern emphasis on individual rights taints our perspective of what freedom may have historically meant to people. Freedom has taken on a very individualistic interpretation in our country, as in freedom of self-expression, but this has not always been understood as emphasizing one’s right to be unique. Although freedom through uniform service may seem incompatible with our current ethic of individualistic freedom, it is in fact reconcilable, as we can see in the Torah portion for this week.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, outlines God’s instructions for making the Tabernacle and furnishing it with various items. This brings up a pivotal question about Judaism: can such a religion really be called one of individual freedom, as it demands rigorous and uncompromising service? In the biblical narrative, the Jews had been freed from slavery, but when they were in the desert, it became clear that their service was far from over. With six hundred and thirteen commandments, Judaism is far from a religion devoid of commitment to God or to the Jewish leadership. And now, at the time of Parshat Terumah, the Jewish people are commanded to begin construction on a building for a higher power.
Furthermore, why is it even necessary to have a house for God, who is not a physical being? The answer is that the Tabernacle was not, in fact, a house of God or even a house for God. Rather, the Tabernacle was a house built by the people and for the people. It was funded by voluntary donations and it thus served as a way for the community to reclaim its own labor for something that mattered to them. The commandment to undertake construction was, in fact, seen as a great expression of Jewish freedom to serve God rather than to earthly masters — providing a stark contrast to Egyptian slavery, in which the Jews had to build “store cities for Pharaoh” (Exodus 1:11) with “back-breaking labor” (13). Thus, the Tabernacle was not created to impose the authority of God on the people; it was built in order to let the people feel that God could hear their direct, individual requests and offerings.
Sometimes, the best way to follow your own path is to find a framework that is agreeable to you, and bring your own individual offerings. From the Tabernacle, we can learn the valuable lesson that sometimes, individual liberty can actually be greatly enhanced by conformity and uniform practice.
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.