Parshat Terumah: Branches of the Same Tree


One the very first day of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, after being introduced to the school faculty and walking through the "basics" of school calendars, attendance policies, and so on, the dean at the time bestowed upon us by far the most valuable piece of Torah I've learned thus far. It went something like this: "Do not think you can bifurcate your personhood. That you can separate out in nice, neat stacks, an assortment of values for your personal life, and alternative values for your professional careers. That you can embody the part of a rabbi and be a radically separate person outside of your career. Instead - simply be one person. Because ultimately if the two value systems don’t amalgamate, cohesively merge together over time, you won’t ever feel whole. And one day it will show. The cracks that separate these two people will turn into craters. And that’s when you’ll run into problems.”

Now, at first, the relevance of this sentiment was utterly lost on me. Yet, as I have aged (not considerably because just last week I was called a “little boy” by a well-meaning woman commenting on my appearance), its brilliance and wisdom have become more apparent. Its piercing message finally hit home…

Before my studies, I had no clue what the intended message was. How could I? The word “rabbi” wasn’t followed by “Sataloff.” I hadn’t fully comprehended how crucial it would be to be one person. To live one life. To have values that didn’t fluctuate depending on who I was trying to impress – in a bar or on the bima. To wake up each morning with uncompromising ethics. To live without conflicting principles of thought, speech, and action. For me, I had always imagined personality like clothing - a set of sweatpants worn at night for comfort and ease and confining suit donned for religious and/or professional settings during the day.

Which is not to say that I don’t don’t believe in a multidimensional personality. After all, I firmly believe “People’s identities are multiphrenic, pieced together from the multiplicity of worlds that people find themselves in.” [1] Meaning, “A person has not one, ‘personal self,’ but rather several selves that correspond to widening circles of group membership. [Because] different social contexts may trigger an individual to think, feel and act on) basis of his personal, family or national ‘level of self.’” [2]

However, at the end of the day, these “branches” – the institutional, national, social, public or familial oriented identities we form (and that inform us) – should be sourced back to the same roots. Our identities should share corresponding values, expressed differently in various contexts. And yet, all identities interconnected by one power source. All aspects of our lives issuing from one soul. Generated from one mind. Fused by one heart. That is one meaning of the symbol of the Menorah, “the lampstand” in which the Israelites were instructed to make. A depiction of Torah philosophy in Jewish life. That learning, ritual, business, and so on do not spin in separate orbits, but work in concert towards a single spiritual goal. In parshat Terumah, we read:

“You shall make a Menorah of pure gold; the Menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be [hammered] of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the Menorah and three branches from the other side of the for all six branches issuing from the Menorah.”

According to our commentators: “The Menorah, whose flames were fed by the purest oil of the olive, symbolized the illumination of the intellect. It was placed near the southern wall of the Tabernacle. Thus, the Ark, containing the word of God, casts its spiritual emanations, as it were, upon the Menorah. This symbolized the conviction that both our spiritual and temporal lives must be guided, and work to serve, the dictates of Torah. Jewish life cannot be compartmentalized in the realms of sacred and temporal, or, in the modern vernacular, Church and State; the Torah regulates all aspects of life and demands purity in all of them…”

Indeed, the requirement that the entire, very intricate Menorah had to be hammered out of one [block] of gold symbolize the indivisibility of the Torah; a Jewish life must be constructed entirely from one set of values. It may not be a hodgepodge of separate bits and pieces, grated together to suit anyone’s convenience. All areas of life must derive from the same set of values. [3]

One might ask a fundamental question regarding this unification, essentially, “Is it possible?!” The short answer is, “Yes – But it’s not easy.” It requires self awareness, thoughtful speech, and intentionality. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his work “The Way of Man,” clarifies this abstract idea of unification. He writes:

“The man with the divided complicated, contradictory soul is not helpless; the core of his soul, the divine force in its depths, is capable of acting upon it, changing it, binding the conflicting forces together, amalgamating the diverging elements - is capable of unifying it. However, what is meant by unification of the soul would be thoroughly misunderstood if ‘soul’ were taken to mean anything but the whole man, body and spirit together. The soul is not really united, unless all bodily energies, all the limbs of the body, are united. A man who thus becomes a unit of body and spirit – he is the man whose work is all of a piece.” [4]

Meaning, we as Jews are given the opportunity to bring our occupational, social, political, and gender identities – along with their corresponding challenges – into the forefront of our religious consciousness. We are responsible for ensuring that the moral qualities of our character don’t fracture, but also, we are offered the means to forge them together despite their seemingly disparate properties and priorities. In a sense, the Torah is asking us to hammer them all out. To align ourselves, or rather, “fall in line.” Because at the end of the day, if we get caught speeding and our driver’s license and registration don’t match up, we may run into some serious issues. This week, let us strive to be two sides of the same shekel.

[1] Bryfman, David, and Barry Chazan. "Israel as a Cornerstone of Jewish Identities." The iCenter for Israel Education, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
[2] Tajfel, Henri. Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.
[3] The Stone Edition Chumash, p.451
[4] The Way of Man, Martin Buber, p. 23;25

Aaron Sataloff