And now G-d does the single greatest act in history. He appears in a revelation at Mount Sinai, the only time in history that G-d has appeared to an entire people. And the people tremble. There never was anything like it before; there never will be again.
How long does this last? A mere 40 days. Then the people make a Golden Calf. If miracles, the division of the sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai fail to transform the Israelites, what will? There are no greater miracles than these.
That is when G-d does the most unexpected thing. He says to Moses: speak to the people and tell them to contribute, to give something of their own, be it gold or silver or bronze, be it wool or animal skin, be it oil or incense, or their skill or their time, and get them to build something together – a symbolic home for my presence, a Tabernacle. It doesn’t need to be large or grand or permanent. Get them to make something, to become builders. Get them to give.
Moses does. And the people respond. They respond so generously that Moses is told, “The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done” (Exodus 36:5). And Moses has to say, “stop.”
During the whole time the Tabernacle was being constructed, there were no complaints, no rebellions, no dissension. What all the signs and wonders failed to do, the construction of the Tabernacle succeeded in doing. It transformed the people. It turned them into a cohesive group. It gave them a sense of responsibility and identity.
Seen in this context, the story of the Tabernacle was the essential element in the birth of a nation. No wonder it is told at length; no surprise that it belongs to the book of Exodus. And there is nothing ephemeral about it. The Tabernacle did not last forever, but the lesson it taught did.
It is not what G-d does for us that transforms us, but rather what we do for G-d. A free society is best symbolized by the Tabernacle. It is the home we build together. It is only by becoming builders that we turn from subjects to citizens. We have to earn our freedom by what we give. It cannot be given to us as an unearned gift. It is what we do, not what is done to us, that makes us free. That is a lesson as true today as it was then.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).