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Teruma: Building Mastery

I spent two and a half days this week immersed in a world I’ve remained blissfully ignorant of for almost three decades. Moving this week to a new apartment, my roommate and I – with the exceptional assistance of two very gracious friends – decided to build all our own furniture. Given my lack of artistic ability, poor spatial reasoning, and fine motor skill deficits, construction has never really been my area of expertise – my nephews are even unimpressed by my feeble attempts at Lego building. And yet, this week found me siting on the floor surrounded by do-it-yourself instruction booklets filled with various shapes, arrows, and pictures, and screws, nails, and tools I’d previously only heard of but rarely wielded.

At some point during this process, I received a call from my father, who was excited to relay an idea from Rabbi Sacks z”l on this week’s Parsha. Parshas Terumah delineates God’s detailed instructions regarding the construction of the Mishkan. In his essay on Parshas Terumah[1], Rabbi Sacks cites research conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely on a phenomenon called the Ikea effect. A reference to the first and perhaps most widely known build-it-yourself furniture store, the Ikea effect denotes our tendency to over-value what we create ourselves beyond the worth we’d ascribe to the same object if someone else manufactured it. Indeed, hours of labor and handfuls of blisters and bruises yielded not only beautiful furniture, but also a deep sense of pride, accomplishment, and mastery, and a fondness for what we’d built.

Rabbi Sacks explains that the Mishkan demonstrated Hashem’s love for the Jewish people in giving them an opportunity to contribute to building His dwelling place, and His wisdom in creating an underlying attachment to the Mishkan by involving Klal Yisrael so directly in the process. Having contributed to building the Mishkan, each member of the Jewish people was sure to feel more connected and attribute greater value to this holiest of buildings. This idea resonated with me not only for its direct relevance to that moment, but also for its timeless application to so many facets of our lives.

From a spiritual perspective, there is much to be said for having a direct involvement in one’s growth process. When we perform Mitzvos ourselves rather than being “yotzei” through someone else or asking a messenger to do the task for us even when that is permissible, we take an ownership over that Mitzvah that is uniquely valuable. Furthermore, when we create, we are emulating God Himself, the true Creator, and, as such, are connecting to the Godliness within us. From a psychological vantage point, creativity and productive involvement in our lives can serve both as a source of meaning, pride, and fulfillment, and also as a means of buffering against negative or stressful emotions and life events.

In DBT, this is called building mastery, the process of doing things we are good at and challenging ourselves to do other constructive things that we have not tried before. Building mastery helps us to feel like active, wide-awake participants in our lives, and also allows us to literally build a life we want to live that is reflective of our values, strengths, and affinities. It is what allows us to see our lives as worthwhile, and to look at our accomplishments with a sense of fondness for what we’ve built. Then, when the storms of life blow through, as they are wont to do, we are anchored by the positive emotions and sense of mastery and effectiveness and joy amassed by all that we’ve done.

When one looks more closely at the pesukim, however, an interesting paradox is found. Initially, Hashem instructs Moshe to collect “terumah,” gifts, from “kol ish asher yadvenu lebo,” any man whose heart desires to give (25:2). Rashi explains that “yadvenu” is a derivative of the word “nedavah,” which means a voluntary gift. As such, this pasuk seems to imply that Hashem encouraged the Jewish people to donate “according to their hearts’ desire.” Yet immediately thereafter, Hashem provides detailed instructions of the exact parameters of this gift, saying, “v’zos haterumah asher tikchu me’itam,” and these are the gifts you shall take from them (25:3). He then continues for five pesukim to describe the exact kinds of gifts that Klal Yisrael should donate to the construction process. He even specifies, “kichol asher ani mareh otcha… v’chein taasu,” essentially, you will build the Mishkan exactly as I tell you to (25:9).

This is curious; is the Mishkan meant to be a joint process, combining God’s vision for His home with the heartfelt gifts of the people, or simply the architectural plan for a Divine unilateral blueprint?

The answer, of course, is both. Renowned psychologists John and Julie Gottman have published a series of widely read books[2] on the five love languages or ways that people convey love and affection. Understanding one’s own love language and that of your partner or family member is essential to fostering strong, loving relationships. I once heard an idea in a class by Rabbi Leib Kelemen about the simple yet critical act of buying his wife flowers. He explained that initially he had to be told what kind of flowers she liked in order to get ones that would actually make her happy and feel the most loved and appreciated. So often, we try to give to others in accordance with what we think is best because we mistakenly believe that asking others what makes them feel good or appreciated detracts from the value of the gift. While it might seem lame to have to ask what your loved one appreciates, this is actually a key to connection. In fact, R’ Kelemen noted, if his wife gave him a list of all the things that bring her joy, this would be the greatest gift, for it would only help him to know how to give to her in the way that she’d most appreciate.

To a large extent, the entire Torah is a lengthy elucidation of God’s love languages. To study the Torah in depth is to learn how to connect to God, and how to connect with the Godliness in others and within us. As such, while contribution to the Mishkan construction was indeed voluntary, an act that God only wanted if the donators so desired, at the same time, the donations had to be circumscribed by God Himself, for there is deep significance to those specifications. In this way, the construction of the Mishkan is about more than just building mastery with a small “m”; it is about the process of subjugating one’s desire, one’s own love language, to that of our ultimate Master, trusting that His design is flawless and perfect.

This week, contemplate both of these important ideas as they relate to your life. Consider ways that you can build mastery by doing more of what you are good at and challenging yourself to take on new tasks that you have not yet mastered. And, consider how your desire to be actively involved in God’s world may not be reflective of the donation that God actually wants from you. Try to open your eyes and ears to what He is asking of you, and to put your own ideas aside to answer His loving call.

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