Parshat Terumah concerns itself with the hyperspecific details for the building of the Mishkan and guidelines for the building of the Ark, the Altar, and the Menorah. Yet amidst such details, three verses present an apparent conflict in how we should serve Hashem. The first verse describes Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding the acquisition of materials for building the Mishkan: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”1 Hashem tells Moshe that the holy Mishkan should be made only from donations. With this verse, Hashem hints at the power we have when we are connected and consciously directing our ratzon (our will). However, soon after, the Torah writes the following two verses: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”2 The the word translated as “among them” [בְּתוֹכָֽם] can also be translated as “inside them.” Hashem tells each of Bnei Yisrael to turn themselves into a sanctuary so that He may dwell within each of us. How do we turn ourselves into a vessel for Hashem? The following verse provides a clue: “Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.”3 Rashi comments on this verse to say that, “this verse must be connected with the verse that precedes it, thus: And let them make for Me a sanctuary … according to all that I am showing thee.”4 How do we turn ourselves into a sanctuary for Hashem? By doing all according to how He shows us. I interpret this to mean: by following My Torah.
We are told to build His Mishkan with donations so that it might be built out of desire rather than obligation. Yet, the second and third verses say that the Mishkan must be built by following His rules exactly. So which is it? Should we do what we want or what He wants?
To answer this question, we must first understand the power of our ratzon. Where our ratzon comes from is a much deeper question, but we all indisputably have a will. We have many phrases to describe an experience of will. Often we use language such as: “I should,” “I’m supposed to…,” “I need to.” The language we use expresses the way we experience the world. This language expresses a lack of power. It demonstrates that our actions are driven not by our intentional desires but rather because we think we have to or because others expect it. However, when we use the phrase “I want” we challenge ourselves to acknowledge that every action of ours is a choice – we are driven by our desire for something and we must then understand what it is that we want and why.
Rabbi David Aaron summarizes this point beautifully: “Will is flowing into us all the time. Which way we channel it, into which activities we invest it, is our choice. But we have no choice whether or not to have choice. Ironically, we are compelled to have choice, even not making a choice is a choice.”5
I notice that actions of mine that are rooted in “shoulds” are often accompanied by a feeling of being trapped, anxious, or constrained. These feelings hint to me that I am acting out of obligation. Often, when I notice this, I find it helpful to simply stop and ask myself truly why I am doing what I’m doing? Just this moment of reflection reconnects me to me. An act as simple as this can empower our actions because it reminds us that we are in the driver’s seat. It challenges us to understand why we are doing what we are doing. To truly connect with one’s will is to connect with oneself and with Hashem. Hashem wants the Mishkan to be made out of donations so that it will be ours. When we do things out of desire and want, we connect deeper to ourselves and thus, to our actions. When we do things simply out of obligation, we disconnect from ourselves and corrupt the holiness in our actions.
The Gemara makes this point when it relates a conversation between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Ya’akov: “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘when one makes one’s prayer keva, one’s prayer is not considered sincere.’ What is keva? Rabbi Ya’akov the son of Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshaya, ‘a prayer that feels like a burden.’”6
Our will does not act of its own accord. It is directed. The driver of our will is either our body (the Guf) which is typically motivated by a desire for pleasure and an aversion to pain, or it is controlled by our higher self – our da’at (our intellect, our awareness) which is motivated by a desire for connection and meaning and truth. Either our actions are driven by our subconscious, or they are driven by a higher understanding of what we want.
True freedom is not doing whatever we want whenever we want it. We cannot simply throw together a tent and start calling it a Mishkan. This is why the later verses are necessary: “Exactly as I show you...you shall make it.” Hashem reminds us that while we can do whatever we want, if we want a relationship with Him – a relationship that allows us to embody truth and love and meaning – then there are some rules. We know this to be true. As long as we let our subconscious desires rule, we are simply slaves, living a reactionary life instead of a purposeful life. We are truly empowered when we connect to our deepest desires – our desires for love, for connection, for safety, for meaning – and then use our intellect to direct our ratzon towards the obtainment of those values. I believe this is Hashem’s message to us. Find your inner truth. The Torah provides the lines to ensure our egos aren’t dictating our desires, which gives us the ability to fill the lines with our true colors.
The Torah sets a beautiful balance. It reminds us what we truly want: connection to ourselves, connection to Hashem, connection to those we love, and it gives us the framework for finding them. Surrendering to “exactly as I show you” helps us free ourselves from egos. It helps us achieve bitul. Bitul is often translated as “self-nullification,” yet I prefer the term “self-actualization.” Bitul is letting go of our association with all the things we are not: our egos and the desires emanating from our egos (i.e. our desires to feel important, powerful, rich, etc.). Bitul is to surrender oneself to higher knowledge, to a deeper understanding that is far beyond what we might want at the moment. As Rabbi Moshe Gersht writes in his book, “When you let go of what you are not, all that is left is your true self.”7 We are then able to live freely.
Hashem also tells us to make this process our own. To bring ourselves into it and to constantly remind ourselves that behind our actions, which at times may feel difficult, we are doing this because we want it. When we look deeply, we understand that we truly do want connection and truth.
Rav Cook writes: “One should not lie to one’s soul; one should not deny one’s inner emotions due to the whirlwind of external approval. If one feels inspired and holy in a specific area of learning, then one must constantly satisfy oneself from this deep pleasure.”8
We thus understand that to truly transform ourselves into a vessel for Hashem – to pursue truth and meaning and love with a passion – we must follow His instructions exactly. And yet, we must also do it voluntarily, by finding our true connection to the instructions. While at times it might be challenging, this should feel empowering. If we ever find ourselves saying “shoulds, supposed to’s, or need to,” in our service of Hashem (or in anything in life), let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves: why we are doing what we are doing. Why are we deciding to do this? Perhaps we will continue with the same action, just with more zest and clarity. Or perhaps we will identify and let go of actions that don’t serve us. When we do this, we reclaim ourselves and our lives. We realize that life is a choice. Hashem tells us: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…”9 May we all merit to see the power of our choice, to have clarity on what we want, and the strength to pursue it with joy and life.
- Shemot: 25:2
- Shemot: 25:8 Rabbi Moshe Gersht Rabbi Moshe Gersht
- Shemot: 25:9
- Shemot: Rashi 25:9
- Rabbi David Aaron: Seeing G-d
- Berachot 29b
- Rabbi Moshe Gersht: It’s All The Same to Me
- Rav Cook: Shmonah Kevaitzim 8:24
- Devarim: 30:19