Siloed behavior

Sacred Work: Thoughts on Parshat Teruma

In Short

One of the most important functions leaders have is bringing people together, especially those with disparate interests and backgrounds, to work towards a common purpose using their God-given talents and motivating their participation.

“Leaders,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Home We Build Together, “do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves.” These words offer an important perspective on this week’s sedra reading, Teruma, and the Torah portions that follow until the end of Exodus.

To understand the work, we have to look at the entirety of the book of Exodus. It can be divided into three distinct sections: 1) chapters 1-15 tell the Israelite story from slavery to freedom, 2) chapters 16-24 tell the movement to and from Sinai and the giving of the law, and 3) chapters 25-40 list the instruction and execution of the Mishkan, our portable Temple in the wilderness. The order makes sense. First, we have a shared story of our anguish, God’s salvation, and Moses’ leadership. Without freedom, we cannot receive and observe the laws that unite us. Once we have laws, we move from a shared past to shared values and behaviors. Our shared history and values enable us to build a holy community; the Mishkan represents the centerpiece of the camp, literally and emotionally, as a way to access the sacred. We needed more than freedom. We needed transcendence.

And to achieve this as a community, we needed to build the Mishkan as a community. The Israelites were called upon to each contribute a half-shekel and to give the best of what they owned and their individual talents as artisans: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Ex. 25:2). Everyone’s heart, it seems, was so moved. But what can a rag-tag group of former slaves possibly have to contribute to the grandeur of the project? Certainly not the list of expected contributions:

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphinskins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuliand other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastplate. (Ex. 25:3-7)

It is unclear what some of these Hebrew terms mean. But what is less clear is how any of the Israelites obtained precious metals, rare skins and expensive dyes. Rashi, who offers a definition of almost every item, shares no wisdom on where these came from. R. Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that some of these goods came into Israelite hands because the people were told three times to take dresses and finery from the Egyptians before they left. He also suggests that either Israelites planted acacia trees when they were in Egypt and took the wood with them or there was a forest of the acacia trees near Sinai. 

Sforno suggests that only the gemstones that were described in Moses’ instructions should be contributed. Other items were rejected. Underlying his reading may be the notion that people, in their generosity, want to give of themselves but often donate objects because they have them and not because they are needed. The right way to give, suggests Sforno implicitly, is to understand first what the needs are.

However, the Israelites obtained these materials is secondary to the fact that giving something of value helped them value the Mishkan. All of this activity was to fulfill God’s mandate: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8). Commentaries on this verse emphasize the second ‘them’ – when they build this portable sanctuary, God will live in the people rather than in the building. But the first them, I believe, explains the second. God will live in them because each one of them made a personal contribution to a joint project of holiness. As slaves, the Israelites were involved in building the edifices of the Egyptian empire. The back-breaking work did nothing to advance themselves as a people. Finally, they were able to build something extraordinary themselves.

This work was a labor of love. Avot de-Rebbi Natan, an ancient rabbinic collection of sayings, states: “A person should love work and not hate work. For just as the Torah was given in a covenant, so work was given in a covenant, as it says (Ex. 20:10): ‘For six days you shall labor and do all your work, and the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Eternal your God’” (11:1). Work, according to this, should represent a fulfillment of our purpose on this earth. Just as the Sabbath is joyous and restorative, should the right work be purposeful and energizing. 

To illustrate, the text continues with an example from the building of the Mishkan, According to Rabbi Natan, Moses led the building charge while his chiefs sat silently observing him and waiting for direction. Then, when they heard a call throughout the camp that the work was complete, they bemoaned the fact that they had made no contribution. This explains, according to Rabbi Natan, the verse “And the chiefs brought the shoham stones [for the breastplate of the high priest] (Ex. 35:27).” Of their own volition, they wanted to take part in the Mishkan’s construction. No one wanted to be left out. 

One of the most important functions leaders have is bringing people together, especially those with disparate interests and backgrounds, to work towards a common purpose using their God-given talents and motivating their participation. Leadership expert, Patrick Lencioni believes that such projects serve another function: they help minimize the differences that stymie people from getting the work done. In Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors, Lencioni identifies silos as barriers that exist within an organization that cause people who are “supposed to be on the same team to work against one another.” He blames leaders for this, saying that many executives fail to, “provide themselves and their employees with a compelling context for working together.” The consequences of siloed behavior are not insignificant; to Lencioni, they can create profound pain:

Silos — and the turf wars they enable — devastate organizations. They waste resources, kill productivity, and jeopardize the achievement of goals. But beyond all that, they exact a considerable human toll too. They cause frustration, stress, and disillusionment by forcing employees to fight bloody, unwinnable battles with people who should be their teammates. There is perhaps no greater cause of professional anxiety and exasperation — not to mention turnover — than employees having to fight with people in their own organization. Understandably and inevitably, this bleeds over into their personal lives, affecting family and friends in profound ways.

Lencioni suggests that the best way to bring people together is to create projects that everyone in a company or team can work on together for a limited period of time to connect the “company’s long-term vision…to its short-term objectives.” The leader has to provide a unifying sense of purpose that highlights everyone’s contribution and gets people moving in the same direction.

Moses made this happen under God’s direction. Every person who labored in the construction of the Mishkan became one of its key stakeholders and felt a profound connection to it and to the God who would one day dwell in them. Community is formed ultimately by builders rather than buildings. Leaders lead best when they create a community of stakeholders.

So, what project can you create that will lower the barriers between people and create genuine stakeholders?

Erica Brown is the vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University and director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center.