Terumah: What’s in Your Heart (Not Your Wallet)?

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Shabbat Shalom. 

 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, G-d tells Moses to invite those Israelites who wish to do so to give Him Terumah, a word usually translated as “gifts.”  The word Terumah comes from the Hebrew root meaning to rise or to raise up. We use a similar image in English, such as “fund raising.”  

 

G-d then commands Moses: “Let them build me a Sanctuary so that I may live _____.”  I’ll leave the end of the sentence incomplete for a moment. What would we expect the end of that sentence to be?  There seem to be only two logical ways to complete the sentence.  Most probably, it would be “so that I may live in it.” Or, it could be “so that I may live with the Terumah,” which would presumably be used or stored in the Sanctuary.  It’s hard to think of any other way to finish that sentence.  

 

So, what does G-d actually say?  

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתֹוכָֽם׃


Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell … and the usual translation is: among them.  

 

How are we to understand this?  Why did G-d need the Israelites to give Him gifts and to build a sanctuary so that He could live “among them?” G-d isn’t a physical being who needs a physical structure. 

 

To solve this riddle, let’s start with the word that precedes “among them.” That word is שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י which is understood as “I will live” or “I will dwell.”  Three other familiar words with the same Hebrew root as שָׁכַנְתִּ֖יare שָׁכֵן (neighbor),שְׁכוּנָה  (neighborhood) and שְׁכִינָה (divine presence).  So, rather than “I will dwell among you,” I’ll translate בְּתֹוכָֽם שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י as a variation of Fred Rogers’ request: “Please won’t you be my neighbor.”  I think G-d is saying: “Give me gifts, build a sanctuary, and I will be your neighbor.”  

 

We still don’t know, though, why the bringing of gifts would be the necessary condition for the divine presence. 

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, points out that until this moment, the Israelites had been the recipient of G-d’s miracles and deliverances. He had taken them from slavery to freedom and performed miracles for them. There was only one thing G-d had not yet done, namely, given the Israelites the chance to give back something.  The construction of the sanctuary was fundamentally important because it gave the Israelites a chance to give back to G-d.  To be in a situation where you can only receive, not give, Sacks wrote [1], is to lack human dignity.  This is why every Jew is obligated to give tzedakah, charity, even the poor who live from the tzedakah received from others. 

 

The Talmud (Shabbat 156b) tells a story about Rabbi Akiva’s daughter.  Astrologers had told him that on the day she married, a snake would kill her.  The morning after her wedding, he went to see her.  Unknown to both of them, when she had hung up her hat after the wedding, its pin had pierced a serpent that would otherwise have bitten her. When she removed the pin, she found the snake.  Rabbi Akiva wanted to know what his daughter had done that merited this divine intervention. She answered, “a poor man came to the door yesterday. Everyone was so busy with the wedding preparations that they had did not have time to deal with him. So I took the portion that had been intended for me and gave it to him.” It was this act of generosity -- her terumah -- that was the cause of her miraculous deliverance.

 

The word בְּתֹוכָֽם translated as “among them” can also literally mean “within them.” Rabbi Meir Leibush [known as the Malbim (1809-1879)] commented that each person is to build a tabernacle in his or her own heart for G-d to dwell in. The Torah wants us to see that the way we do this inner construction work is by perfecting our spontaneous generosity. Mussar master Alan Morinis wrote that because we live in a money-centric culture, we tend to think of generosity only as a question of reaching into our wallets. But as with all soul-traits, generosity is a quality of the soul and so it can find expression in many ways. We can be generous with money and also with our time, our energy, and our possessions. 

 

The lesson of the gifts for the Sanctuary is that we are ourselves raised up when we raise up Terumah for worthy causes and for others.  Our daily challenge as Jews is to look for opportunities to do so. 

 

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For more information about this and other Jewish ethical topics, please visit theethicaltorah.com

 

Shabbat shalom.



[1] Essays on Ethics, Maggid Books, 2016, p. 122. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb