In last week’s Maftir we read about the obligation for every Israelite to give half a shekel, regardless of how wealthy or poor they are. This week we read about a different kind of gift for which our Torah portion is named, the terumah. The terumah was a voluntary contribution that each person gave to the Tabernacle according to “how their heart moved them.” And these were not the dregs-the gifts people brought included gold, silver and copper!
What would motivate someone to give of their resources towards the building of the Tabernacle? Even more so, what would motivate them to give so much that Moses will have to tell them “Stop Giving” four portions later. The commentator Kli Yakar writes that the gold that the Israelites gave towards the Tabernacle atoned for the gold that they used to make the golden calf. Similarly, Baal HaTurim notes that the word for “taking” the Terumah offering is in plural. Why? Because you give Terumah not as an individual but in the context of a community. The Israelites recognized that they were giving to something greater than themselves: the creation of a House for God.
We gain even more appreciation for the gifts of the Israelites when we look at Terumah from a rabbinic context. During Temple times, Terumah was the portion of one’s crops that s/he gave to the priests. One gave 1/50th of his/her crops to the Kohanim, and this portion was designated as Terumah. Similarly, one gave 1/10th of his/her crops to the Levites, known as m’aaser or me’eser (one out of ten), and a portion of this went to the Kohanim as well. Total this equated to given 12% of one’s estate. The job of the Kohanim and Leviim was to serve God in the Temple, not to plant crops and harvest the land, and as a result the community gave them food. The Kohanim provided the spiritual nourishment for the Israelites-the other tribes provided their physical nourishment. Not only that but the giving of the Terumah was an item of spiritual significance in and of itself. Masechet Berachot, the Talmudic Tractate dealing with blessings, begins “What is the time at which one can begin to say the evening Shema? Rabbi Eliezer says ‘From the time that the Kohanim go in to eat their Terumah until the end of the first night watch.”
While this form of Terumah was halachically required to be given, I would argue that it serves a similar purpose as the Terumah from our portion: it enables people to be part of something larger than themselves. It is too easy to feel that what we produce is ours and ours alone-as opposed to utilizing our resources towards a greater spiritual purpose. Imagine what would happen if everyone gave 12% of their resources to spiritual organizations. The rabbis mandate that we give between 10 and 20% of our income to Tzedakah. I will acknowledge how hard it is to give this amount-and that I am not at a stage where I give it. However, in hearing Rabbi Elie Kaunfer at the Schechter Night of Jewish Learning, I was inspired to give more and get closer to reaching the 10% threshold required of Jewish law.
What is going to be your Terumah, your voluntary contribution, to our spiritual house of worship over the course of the next few months? For some it might be to take a leadership role in our congregation; for others it might be to increase your financial contribution to our synagogue; for others it might be to help me with outreach, getting the word out about the exciting things that our congregation is doing to the greater community. I hope that each of us will voluntarily contribute to the Jericho Jewish Center in a significant way, so that we can feel that our spiritual home is a place where God is dwelling amongst us each and every day. Requirements don’t work in our day and age-we are in a century of choice, where time is the most finite resource and where we are pulled in so many directions. I hope and I pray that each of us will proactively make a significant Terumah through your involvement and your contributions to our congregation in the days ahead. Shabbat Shalom.