This week’s parsha, Terumah, begins with God telling Moshe to collect the donations the people will make in order to build the Mishkan, the sanctuary. וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, And take for me Terumah (donations raised to a higher use) from each man whose heart has pledged. If you note the Hebrew you’ll see that both “man” and “his heart” are written in the singular.
Each person will contribute their unique assets, not only to the project of building a sanctuary, but in building a ultimately-perfected world, a world finally worthy to have been created by God. Each contribution is necessary. Each is uniquely different from every other one. None, and no partial combination of these, is sufficient.
There are many teachings, for example comparing the 600,000 letters in a Torah scroll with the 600,000 souls who received the Torah at Sinai, which speak to the worth of each of us, mandating our understanding of and caring for even those “whose letter is distanced from our own” as well as our care for each other. This is, indeed, a very important message.
But our pasukim/verses go even deeper, I think, all the way to the very reason for the Jewish people and what we really have to give, and have been giving for thousands of years, to the world. We believe in individual empowerment which only derives from individual responsibility. We’re individually important because we are truly important, not just as a maudlin gesture. If any one of us were to have a mission that wasn’t important, absolutely crucial, their job, and later themselves would not be held to much importance. As we lose importance we certainly lose whatever power we might have attained.
Moreover, if each of our contributions are uniquely necessary, they are equivalent. This means no individual or group of people can ever be an absolute authority over the rest of us. Only God is the ultimate authority, the omniscience that contains no doubt. This wisdom, if strongly held, immunizes against totalitarianism and slavery.
Yes, it’s hardwired into our system to help people when they’re not able to manage for themselves, let alone continue their efforts for us all. But that’s only an emergency action with the ultimate goal to restore that person to their ability to, once again, perform their own work. Otherwise, the entire world will sorely lose what that one, unique, person had the potential to contribute. We can’t afford to reduce someone’s opportunity to do their job, just as we can’t refuse to do our own.