When I decided to pursue my undergraduate degree in theater, I spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of objectives. Sometimes this was in exploration of a character, but often, it was an act of introspection. Objectives, after all, are not just limited to the realm of the creative. What gets each of us out of bed every morning if not the drive to do?
When I consider this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, and God’s latest directive to the Israelites, this idea of objectives is not far from my mind.
Having recently made their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites’ objective of reaching the Promised Land is derailed when they commit a transgression against God through the worship of a false idol. Subjugating the Israelites to a 40 year trek through the desert, God seeks retribution in the form of a Terumah, or offering. “The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My Offering… And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:1-8).
And so, with this new objective in mind, the people build a sanctuary, or Tabernacle, where they are going to establish their ritual life in the desert, a ritual life that will continue on when they get to the land of Israel.
In the theater, you start with a foundation: a script, stage, cast, crew and creative team. From there, you build a world, and together, you tell a story. And what is truly special about the theater, what is truly miraculous, is that—as with all art—this thing that you are creating, you are doing so with the intent to share.
If we liken this experience to that of the Israelites in their building of a sanctuary in which God may reside, then it is not the structure itself that is holy, but rather the possibility of connectedness to the Divine presence that dwells within. A piece of theater, much like a temple, may be magnificent, made from the richest materials imaginable, but the objective for its building is that rare ability to truly commune.
Terumah’s corresponding Haftarah (a weekly reading from the section of the Bible called “Prophets”), expands upon God’s word to Moses: “(Concerning) this house which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, and execute My ordinances, and keep all My commandments to walk in them; then will I establish My word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people, Israel” (I Kings 6:12). If the desert journey represents transience, then here is a promise of permanence.
The Torah and the theater have another significant commonality. They are both ancient traditions that have stood the test of time, passed down through millennia as tools for teaching and for helping us to make sense of the world as it was then and as it is now. To explore the throughlines of both human nature and human history through a practice that has endured is a great gift indeed.
Just as an entire generation passes for the Israelites between their Exodus from Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land, so too are we now building for the future we wish to inhabit. In a modern world sowed with discord, it is important to remember that the architects of the United States built the foundations of our modern democracy not with precious metals or fine linens, but with a single document full of objectives. The American Constitution and the democratic republic that has followed, for all of its flaws, for the many setbacks, offers with every new generation the hope that we can continue to build on the foundations laid out by our forebears, while striving to also do better.
So, when our community—be it the community we’re born into or the community we’ve adopted—is in flux, when the structures we hold dear are shifting around us, we have no choice but to move, to act. Rather than an exodus through physical space, we are experiencing an exodus through time. We are catapulting into tomorrow, and the choices we make now, the institutions we uplift and the values we uphold will determine our future, our children’s future, their children’s future l’olam va’ed—extending forever into the future. Our ability to face adversity lies in our ability to choose an objective. Our ability to unite and to build community together will determine our ability to reach a different type of Promised Land, as yet unrealized: a land of liberty and justice for all.