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Toward Shabbat: Terumah

As the Israelites are in the early stages of their long journey through the desert, which we read in this week’s parashah, Terumah, God gives the people instructions on how to build the mishkan (tabernacle), where God’s presence will rest. In what is a very technical parashah, we begin to get to know a side of God we haven’t yet encountered, one that is interested in intimacy and relationship with the people. But the initial guidance from God is not about materials, designs, or instructions. Instead, God says to Moshe (Shemot 25:2):

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כׇּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי׃

The JPS translation of this verse reads as follows: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts [terumah]; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” But in the interest of making the verse flow, JPS fails to accurately translate it. God is not telling the people to bring God gifts, but rather, in the translation of Robert Alter, “take me a donation.”

If you find this verb choice puzzling, you’re in good company, as many of our commentators felt it was necessary to clear up the meaning of the verse. The Ashlikh explains that all of our possessions are in fact God’s, thus making the Israelites incapable of actually giving. He explains, “That the Blessed One said, “See My affection for you. For isn’t [this contribution] from what is actually mine?! [Nevertheless] I will credit you abundantly as if you had done it.” My teacher Dena Weiss elaborates that in our giving to God, God is giving us an opportunity to give something much more pure than a physical gift. We have the opportunity to share, to be thoughtful, to be generous. This becomes more clear when we focus on the second half of the verse: “accept gifts from anyone whose heart is so moved.” God is not interested in the quality of the people’s jewelry, or the quantity of their currency, but rather the generosity of their spirit. By making the donation optional, God is giving the people an opportunity to show God love that isn’t materialistic, but a form of spiritual compassion.

As contemporary readers in a world without a mishkan, how can we heed God’s call to take from God a donation, if our hearts are so moved? How can we show God our own version of spiritual compassion? In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Rambam explains that there is greater merit to giving one dinar to 1,000 different people instead of giving a 1,000-dinar donation to one person. The repetition of an act of generosity allows it to become a part of who we are, whereas one large donation perhaps allows that act to be only a fleeting moment. According to the Rambam, the amount we give is not important, as our currency is not ours. However, each time we decide to give, he says, that is the way we show our generosity in this world.

If all that we give to others is truly only something that we have taken from God, how can this change the way we think about giving to others? And if giving is less about the content and more about the willingness to give, how can that open our hearts to more acts of hesed, of kindness, of generosity? It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the many ways we feel called daily to give: our money, our time, our emotional energy. May we be fortunate enough to view these moments not as burdens but as opportunities. May we see in every chance to give an opportunity to pay forward what God has given to us. And may we be blessed to view each time we are generous as our own terumah offering to God.