On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Building Our Own Tabernacle Together - Parashah Trumah

In this week’s Parashah, the Israelites contribute whatever they can to Moses in order to help build the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Join Rabbi Rick Jacobs and special guest Andrés Spokoiny (President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network - https://www.jfunders.org) as they discuss how we, similarly, can work together to build something sacred to benefit and support others for generations to come.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs was joined by Andres Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. They talk about parashah T'rumah, and they teach us about what it means to collectively contribute to Jewish life.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] This week, we focus our attention on parashah T'rumah from the Book of Exodus, focusing on the building of the Tabernacle. And we get some very specific instructions. The very opening gives us guidance. And to help us in not only understanding this week's Torah portion but giving us some insight into a wider world of Jewish philanthropy is Andres Spokoiny, who is the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network and is an amazing Jewish leader, inspiring and learned. And we are so honored, Andres, to have you on the podcast.

[Andres Spokoiny] Thank you so much. And thank you for the kind words.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] And can I just say a tiny bit, that you not only are in this wonderful position with the Jewish Funders Network, but also that you've served as the CEO of Federation in Montreal, the JDC in Paris, that you once worked for IBM, and you once were a rabbinical student, and that you speak fluent Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Yiddish. I mean, all of that-- if any of that is true, it is overwhelmingly impressive. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

[Andres Spokoiny] Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was a wandering Jew, the living example of a wandering Jew.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] So thank you for wandering to the podcast. So the opening of the parashah, in chapter 25, we learn the Eternal spoke to Moses and said, tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts. In Hebrew, v'eychol leh trumah. And accept these gifts from every person whose heart so moves them.

So in this opening of the parashah, we learn that all of the building of this first praying place in Judaism was the result of philanthropy. People gave. And they gave from the generosity of their hearts.

And they gave gold and silver. And they gave copper and different yarns. And what we learn later in the telling is they gave so much, they didn't have use for all that they gave.

This feels like it may be, if there's a Torah portion that really is about the work of the Jewish Funders Network, it may, in fact, be this and that place of generosity in giving which is at the heart of Jewish life. Do you think that's a reach to say that?

[Andres Spokoiny] No, that's perfectly accurate. I would just say two things. First of all, I don't think I ever encountered a situation in which preceding organizations said, we have too much philanthropy. We don't need any more. But, you know, the Bible is also aspirational, so maybe one day generosity will be so big that this will happen. But yes, I mean, there's a lot of aspects here that are incredibly rich, as every portion of the Torah--

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Of course, of course.

[Andres Spokoiny] Layers and layers. And so first of all is the question of t'rumah. You translated t'rumah-- not you, but most translations translate it as gift. Now, it can also be translated as a contribution.

In the notion that I'm not giving somebody to somebody else-- something to somebody else. What I'm doing is making a contribution to a collective endeavor. And I love to see philanthropy as that, is that people together are building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. It belongs to all of them, and they all contribute.

So this notion of philanthropy as deeply rooted in the notion of ownership, of collective ownership of a collective destiny. We're doing this together. And therefore, we all contribute. And we all contribute according to our own capacity.

One of the beautiful things about t'rumah is it doesn't-- the Mishkan doesn't have a plaque of this one gave. These [HEBREW], these-- how you translate?

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Arch curtain.

[Andres Spokoiny] The Arch curtain was donated by, right?

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Right.

[Andres Spokoiny] It's all collective. It's all collective. And it belongs to the people. And that's a beautiful idea. Well, I--

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Go ahead.

[Andres Spokoiny] Sorry.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] No, go ahead. I was just going to raise, maybe, in your answer, a lot of times in our lives, we give out of the goodness of our heart. We just feel generous. And sometimes we have to be kind of pushed or cajoled into giving. It's not always our first instinct.

But here, it's only the gifts that are given from the goodness. [HEBREW] is that gift that comes from the pure goodness and generosity. It flows forth from us. Is it somehow only valuable if it flows forth, if you don't have to be, in a sense, rewarded with a plaque or some public recognition? Is that really the heart of generosity and of philanthropy, that it has to come from that place?

[Andres Spokoiny] Well, the Torah has-- and you, of course, know better than me on this-- but the Torah has a sort of an ambivalent view on generosity. Yes, the Mishkan is built by contributions that are given by the generosity of people's hearts. But later and earlier in the Torah, you have situations in which charity unto the [HEBREW] is mandated.

I mean, giving, for Judaism, is not only a matter of altruism, a matter of generosity. It's a matter of justice. It's an obligation, frankly. So yes, there is a place for generosity.

But there's something deeper than that. There's the belief that philanthropy is a mechanism to bring justice into the world. In other words, you don't have more money because you're a better human being. You've just been blessed. And it's part of your work of justice to give opportunities to others and to help others. And it's not just out of the generosity of your heart.

I think that the best place for philanthropy is a combination, right? It's exercising the muscle of compassion and generosity, which becomes stronger the more you exercise it. But also to understand that, yes, it's meritorious to do this. But you shouldn't congratulate yourself too much, because that's what you're supposed to do. That's the order of society that God wants from us.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Yeah, yeah. Beautiful. And it also is, in life, also dependent on what is the project. So here in the Torah, the project is to build the first portable praying place for the Jewish people, something that would be beautiful and portable and modest and would be the work of the hands of the whole community. So it's a very communal-- it's almost like the Amish barn raising, right? Everybody comes together. They're all working as one.

[Andres Spokoiny] Exactly. Exactly. And you don't want this to be done out of a sense of obligation. Now, there are other things that, yes, you have an obligation. Like the idea of those--

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] The corners of your field, right.

[Andres Spokoiny] The corners of your field. Feeding the needy. That's not something that is discretionary. That you have to do.

Now, participating in a collective project like this, it's important. And it works when you do it out of the generosity of your heart. But it is something that we build as our common home. And in that common home, the value of compassion, the value of reaching to one another, it's key. It's a house built with love.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Right. Right. So can I ask you-- because I know there's a justice component. You've already mentioned it several times. I also know your being raised in Argentina with a wonderful Judaism that was about passionate ritual and spirituality and deep commitment to social justice.

Can I just raise that a few portions ago, in parashah Bo, we actually have the origin of what might be called reparations. The Israelites had served as slaves, have built pyramids for Pharaoh for 430 years. And as they're leaving, the text says they borrowed-- [HEBREW]-- they borrowed or they were, in a sense, taking their reparations, gold and silver from their neighbors. And that that was reparations for all of the centuries, all of the blood, sweat, and the tears and what they did.

And that here, some of that gold and silver and copper is used as the offering of their hearts, which you could say very much that they earned as slaves and now carried with them. That there is also a gift of not just their own generosity, but the generosity of those who came before them, whose work obviously generated that. But it raises, even in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable praying place, the elements of what a just community does.

[Andres Spokoiny] Yeah, what a just community on the one hand-- meaning, yes, you pay fairly. I mean, somebody who works for you, you pay them. And you pay them at the right level.

But it also says something deeper. What you just mentioned, that it actually-- the work on the Mishkan includes the fruit of the labor of generations past. It's something-- there's something beautiful and deep there, which is that our common project means that there is a tissue of past and present and future, that we're all connected somehow in that community.

And the essence of philanthropy is this notion that all human beings, and of course all Jews, are, as Martin Luther King said, we're tied in an inextricable network of mutuality. In other words, what happens to one of us happens to all of us.

And that's the essence of the building of the Mishkan. We're building it with what happened to us collectively, with that gold and that silver that we got because we toiled to get it and we suffered together. And we're building it for us, and we're building it for the future.

And philanthropy is the same. It's recognizing that I may be wealthier. But I'm part of a social fabric, of a people, that what happens to them affects me and vice versa. So I think that in this sense, philanthropy is also very linked with this notion.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Yes, yes. Beautiful. I love that sense of the Dr. King, that inextricable web of connectedness, especially when there's a common project. Now, you could say many ways that the building of the Tabernacle is a sacred endeavor. We're building a world of wholeness, a world of compassion, a world of justice. That is, of course, the Jewish project in history.

Can I just ask, how is the philanthropic community doing in that project? And your role at the Jewish Funders Network is to help galvanize people to do some of the most critical and important building. And we have to have contributions to do that. Is that project, the project of our philanthropic community, to build a more whole and just world? And how are we doing?

[Andres Spokoiny] It's an interesting question, because it doesn't have a single-handed answer. The main question that I would ask first is, do we as Jews have a collective project? I think that, rather, we have a multiplicity of collective projects.

And I see that some of these collective projects are doing amazingly well. I mean, listen, the work that you guys are doing out the URJ, revitalizing Jewish life. It's just a collective project that is doing amazingly well. And it's funded by philanthropy.

So in a way, it's led by excellent professionals and leaders like yourself. But it's also supported by folks that understand the value of that project. We need to-- and by the way, I could mention many others, right, from--

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] Of course. Of course.

[Andres Spokoiny] You name it. I mean, the idea that we're going to collectively bring every young Jew to Israel on a trip as their birthright. It was a thematic dream, and here we are. So we can do amazing things.

I'm a little concerned about the clash between the need for collective projects and a society that is organized increasingly, more and more, around the individual. In other words, at the core of the building of the Mishkan is a collective project. At the core of the Jewish project, there is a community dimension. There's a collective idea.

Yet we live in a society that believes that the role of the society, the role of the community, is actually to empower the individual. In other words, the society is there to serve an individual and not vice versa. So this may be a little philosophical, but it is, in fact, impacting the work of philanthropy in deep ways.

Is philanthropy a way for you to express yourself? Or is philanthropy a way for you to participate in a collective project of the Jewish people? And that's not just the Jews. That's happening to society in general.

So I think that one of the challenges that we have-- and we all have, all humans living the 21st century-- is to bridge those two dimensions. The individual-- and nobody wants to go back to a place where individuals were unempowered. Now we live in a time of hyper-empowered individuals, and that's OK.

On the other hand, we lose something when we make the individual experience the absolute center of society. So I think that for philanthropists, for rabbis, for community, for clergy of any faith, the challenge now is to bridge these two things and take the best of both worlds. Create communities that can empower each and every one of us, allowing us to give our unique contribution. But also, it motivates us and inspires us to reach out and do something together, like the Mishkan.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] I love that dynamic tension, Andres, because you're talking about that individual need to express oneself. But there's a collective and a communal good in being part of that. And how do we have that internal tension resolved?

And I just would say we live in what has clearly been defined as the wealthiest Jewish community that has ever lived in the history of our people. And yet we also look around, and so many things feel like they're financially challenged.

[Andres Spokoiny] Correct.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] And there's probably more philanthropy today maybe than ever before. How do we get onto the same page, and as our ancestors did in the building of the Mishkan, get our sights-- we have creativity and individuality. But there's something communal and bigger that we are building together. So maybe as a last thought, which is, I think, a redemptive image of our people, that we're actually trying to be God's partners in building a world that isn't just a monument to individuals and to certain families, but a way in which we all realize ourselves and our holy commitment to one another and to the Holy One.

[Andres Spokoiny] Yeah, and I would say-- and totally agree. And I would say, I would go in further. I would say that the way in which we become human, the way in which we become fully human, is by having an influence in someone else's life. Hillel said it. If I'm just for myself, what am I?

We only maximize our full potential as human beings, we only become who we're meant to be, when we participate in a project that goes beyond ourselves. And that is philanthropy. And that is Judaism, a project to give us meaning, to each and every one of us, and at the same time transforming the world and making it a better place.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] I love it. I love it. So the opening image of bringing t'rumot, bringing a t'rumah, a gift, a contribution, as you taught us, you have brought us a gift today with your insights, your learning, and your deep commitment to the collective project of the Jewish people and to the philanthropy that will help us to live out those commitments. So to Andres Spokoiny, [HEBREW]. We are grateful to you.

[Andres Spokoiny] Thank you.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] And keep up the holy work.

[Andres Spokoiny] Thank you. And thank you, Rob and Rick, for your amazing work at the URJ and for the inspiration you afford everybody.

[Rabbi Rick Jacos] To dah. Thank you.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJpresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat.