This week's Torah portion, "If You Will Go Within My Rules," contains twelve biblical precepts, spelled out over two main narratives. The first narrative is an outline of a covenant between the people of Israel and God. If we cherish and follow God's instructions, then we'll enjoy security, stability, and the bounty of the land. If we despise and dismiss God's instructions, then we'll face war, terror, and utter poverty. The second narrative explains the Torah's system for supporting the Sanctuary, mainly through tithing and personal endowments. What is the connection between these two segments - and why does the third book of the Torah conclude with them?
The first narrative of this week's portion references the covenant made on Mt. Sinai in giving us a choice. We need only value the instructions given to us - instructions for living with integrity, for realizing human potential, for embracing reality - and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling them in everyday life, in order to experience a life truly worth living. When we abandon those instructions - or worse, hold them in contempt - then we experience a life of frustration, fright, and suffocation. The difference isn't found in God's turning away from us, but in our choice of trust in the source of all things or trust in something else, our turning to or away from God. When we choose to hide from God, we only bring upon ourselves our own misery, a fog of frustration through which the skies seem frozen and the earth seems barren. When we confront God with a sincere heart, our world lights up in a dazzling spectrum of spiritual and material gifts.
After this outline of the choice before us and the value of dedication to fulfilling God's will, the Torah "brings it home" with a concrete social program for dedication to God. In the ancient world, it was common for human beings to be dedicated to manual labor within the central religious and military institutions. This form of "soft" slavery was publicly justified as a worthy way of sanctifying the lives of the dedicated, serving the heavenly rulers here on Earth. On the one hand, the ideal is noble: human beings giving of themselves in service of spiritual values in the earthly realm - is this not the very basis of charity? Don't the institutions which engage in and promote these activities deserve society's support? On another hand, the reality of this ancient arrangement is barbaric - human beings held in bondage, sacrificed by powerful rulers on questionable grounds.
The Torah's answer to the dilemma is profound. It's true that charity is a laudable act, a sincere imitation of the compassionate God who sustains all life, and in whose house all may find shelter and sanctuary - and therefore you can and should give of your flocks and your fields to support those who are dedicated to those ideals. Yet the manual labor God desires is not in the Sanctuary itself but out in the world, labor in the marketplace and in the courthouse, a labor of social justice and fulfillment of God's instructions. If you want to dedicate yourself to God, you may contribute some money to the public Sanctuary funds - and then promptly dedicate yourself to doing God's work in the world, to revering the word of God, to respecting the sanctity of God's home, land, and children. It's for this service that the people of Israel were selected to receive God's instructions - that those instructions should be fulfilled and appreciated among human beings.
In this way, these two narratives are a fitting end to the third book of the Torah, which outlines the different facets of the Sanctuary, its services and its staff, and its place in the heritage of the people of Israel. When all is said and done, all the rituals, institutions, and spiritual tools we're given won't help us sanctify our lives without a key ingredient - personal dedication. What's more, this dedication is found in our attitudes and in our actions, in the degree of their connection to God's instructions for us. Whether we choose to love or despise God and the gifts given to us, God's request of us remains the same: to be holy people, charitable and compassionate, worthy partners with God in creating the world every day.
We hope that this weekend we'll all find strength and renewed dedication in our spiritual and worldly lives.