Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Parashat Terumah describes the very first capital campaign in the history of our people, and as such, has probably been used to launch more synagogue and Jewish community campaigns, than, well, anything.
At the beginning of the portion, God commands Moses: “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” [Ex. 25:2] God requests these gifts so that the Israelites can build the mishkan, the sacred tent where the Divine Presence would palpably dwell in the middle of the camp.
This is different from tzedakah, which is often misunderstood to mean charity. Tzedakah literally means “doing right.” While charity can be an expression of how we are feeling in the moment, we are commanded to do right (including supporting worthy causes and institutions) at all times, regardless of how we feel. However, in this passage we get the qualifier “yidveinu libo“- whose heart is so moved. Libo means ‘his heart.’ Yidveinu is related to the Hebrew word Nedivut, which means ‘generosity.’ This portion is about generosity of the heart.
Generosity can take many forms. We can be generous with our time, wisdom, knowledge, wealth, friendship, our love, and so much more. Patience can also be a form of generosity, as can forgiveness.
At Temple Beth Ami, we are blessed to be a community of generous people. Our collective generosity has enabled us to weather the storm of the past two years. It is, in my opinion, the reason why our community is growing, even in the midst of the pandemic.
And yet, sometimes, our generous hearts can become unexpected obstacles.
I recently heard from a few congregants who felt bad that they are not able to give what they consider to be a “generous” or “substantial” gift to our 50th Anniversary Endowment Campaign. They consider giving an “insignificant” gift worse than giving nothing at all.
To those of us who may feel this, the words of terumah provide a different frame for our consideration:
“And this is the donation that you shall take from them: gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple and crimson, and linen and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and ocher dyed skins and acacia wood.” [Ex. 25: 3-5]
All these supplies were needed to build the mishkan, not just the gold, silver and bronze. Goat hair would not have been a heavy lift for the Israelites, nor would animal skins or acacia wood. There was inherent value in every gift, and without each and every contribution, the mishkan could not have been built. And without the mishkan, there would be no place carved out for God to dwell in the midst of the Israelites.
Rabbi Joseph Meszler elevates this concept further by examining the actual construction of the mishkan. The sides of the sanctuary were to be made of upright planks of acacia wood with “two tenons for the one board linked to each other …” [Ex. 26:17] A tenon is a small wood extension (not gold!) which would allow the planks to be linked and secured to each other, each plank reinforcing the strength of the plank on either side. Rabbi Meszler notes that the Hebrew word for tenons is yadot – literally ‘hands.’1
When we are generous, we hold each other up. If you have not already given, please help us to build a stronger foundation for the next fifty years. If you think you are not capable of a “significant” contribution, please know this: whether your contribution is ‘goat hair’ or ‘gold,’ your gift adds measurable strength, support, and vitality to our synagogue. That is how the Torah defines generosity, and I am confident it is a bar we can all reach.