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“Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah” – Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:11
“Terumah” is the parashah I began with when I started writing these “Light of the Infinite” divrei Torah a couple years ago, on the Yahrzeit of my kids’ bubbie, Yehudis Chava bat Yakov. I chose to begin this project– to write and share Torah– to try to inspire others in her memory/honor. Now that I have made it through the year to this same parashah, I will expand and dive a bit deeper.
Where we are now in the Torah, the Jews are coming out of everything being taken care of for them– being taken out of Egypt, through the split Sea, given food (manna) directly from heaven. It was as if we were children, because we were given everything. As we walked through the Red Sea, we came into our own as a nation. And now, in the act of giving terumah, the Parashah is telling us something very profound– giving confers dignity, receiving does not.
I haven’t known anyone more dignified or giving than my kids’ bubbie, Yehudis Chava bat Yakov. When I think of her, I think of tzedakah in all its forms, and I think of chesed (loving kindness), something she exemplified to an angelic degree. She was someone so full of life, love, warmth, and light, at every turn, every single moment. It inspired me to be more loving, more giving, more full of a zest for each moment in life. And she had so many blissful moments herself, with all eleven of her kids and their children.
These divrei Torah are a way for me to hopefully give inspiration to my readers to give and to love the way I saw demonstrated daily from my kids’ bubbie and from their savta (my mother). I channel that energy into how I learn Torah, how I view the world, and how I put that into writing to share a perspective. I hope that these words inspire you to delve deeper into the Torah and kabbalisitc texts, and, as Chaim Vital says, “One can go deeper and deeper, as far as the human mind can delve, and [the Torah] will always yield new treasures.”
An Instruction Manual for Electric Holiness
Bereishit begins with Hashem creating the world, and all of the details of the Creation are covered in 34 pesukim (verses). Now that B’nei Yisrael as a nation have gone through the Splitting of the Sea to mark our Exodus from enslavement and our entrance into Redemption, the creation of the Mishkan is the manifestation of this new reality, of bringing Hashem from the Heavens to dwell in our physical space. The Torah isn’t an instruction manual for Hashem but for us, and that is why instead of 34 pesukim detailing how we are to bring the Shechinah (Divine Presence) down into this world, there are hundreds dedicated to the details of building the Mishkan. Shechinah comes from the same root as Mishkan– it’s our way of bringing heaven down to earth. Mishkan is also related to kadosh which means “holy.” It is through this sanctification that we are to sanctify our reality by bringing the infinite to a space of finitude.
R’ Simcha Zisl of Kelm, quoting Ibn Ezra, says of the Mikdash that the idea of holiness being concentrated and confined to a set “place” is similar to a person’s sense of smell, which is confined to his nose. Even though one’s entire being enjoys the smell of spices, they are absorbed through just one small part of the body. This is what Abrabanel said the symbolism of the Mikdash was meant to demonstrate– that Hashem doesn’t only dwell in the heavens, but also throughout the earth. So, while Hashem is everywhere, He communicates through the Mikdash.
Zisl adds his own metaphor: since the discovery of electricity, we know there is potential light everywhere, even in darkness. Nonetheless, to see this light, one must take action. The Mikdash is the light of Creation which is revealed through actions taken by each person. Like electricity, it demonstrates that there is a spiritual force throughout the universe, which only needs awareness and action to activate.2
Since this is the first appearance of the old adage, ‘if you build it, He will come’, the Torah goes into great detail over how to build it. The laws of how to build the Mishkan include precise measurements and explain how each and every person can give in order to create. To this day, we still face towards the Temple in Jerusalem when we pray, toward “the gateway to heaven,” where all our prayers ascend on High, the meeting place between the finite and the infinite.
How to be a Sanctuary
Sefer HaChinuch teaches that we must remember that any commandment that Hashem requires of humankind comes only out of Hashem’s desire to benefit us. Hashem’s command to build the Mishkan, for us to offer our prayers and sacrifices, comes not out of Hashem’s need to dwell in an earthly dwelling among humankind, but rather [out of Hashem’s awareness that we need] to train our own selves.3
This parashah covers the actions needed to bring this infinite awareness into our present reality, and it’s the first time we see how charitable B’nei Yisrael are. In the first verses, Hashem instructs Moshe to gather gifts from the people in order to construct the Mishkan. There is an itemized list of that which is to be given, e.g. gold and silver, spices, incense and precious gems.4
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי
Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion, from every person whose heart so moves them shall take My portion.5
On this pasuk many ask the same obvious question: grammatically, shouldn’t it read ויתנו – let them give a portion rather than ויקחו – let them take a portion? We must always be cognizant that everything belongs to Hashem, as King David sings, “לַֽ֭ה’ הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ”, the earth and its fullness belong to Hashem.6 And so the concept of ownership is actually an illusion, as it’s only used to differentiate between people in this world, but the emet (truth) is that it is all Hashem’s. The same way that the money we possess isn’t really ours– money comes and goes– the only element of money that we could claim is ours is the tzedakah (charity) we contribute, because that is something we give and something we elevate, so we can claim that as ours in a sense. In this same way, the Torah is saying, “Take for yourself by using it for Me.” It isn’t the gold and silver that we are giving, but the enthusiasm and heart when we give, the motivation and sincerity– these are the true giving. That is why materials given reluctantly for the Mishkan (tabernacle) were not accepted.7
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.8
The Shlah points out, the word ‘sanctuary’ here is singular, however, the Torah doesn’t say בּתוכו – “within it,” as in dwelling within the Mikdash/Mishkan/sanctuary, but בּתוכם – “within them” as in “I (Hashem) will dwell within them, within each and every one of them.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that just as the physical Sanctuary was brought about by the donations listed in this parashah, so too the spiritual Sanctuary within each of us is brought about through Divine service, the spiritual parallel of the donations we are now learning about.9 As we know, the Torah is the guide of how to draw the Shechinah down into the physical realm. Here, Hashem is telling us to turn ourselves into sanctuaries for the Shechinah, as our Patriarch and Matriarch did. And when we do that, the Shechinah, the Light of Infinite, will dwell in our midst.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the letters of TeRUMaH form an acronym for the final letters of the verse in Tehillim, “to gaze upon the pleasantness of Hashem and to visit His Chamber,”10 which you can see:
לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹעַם ה’ וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵֽיכָלֽוֹ (lachazoT b’noaM YHVH u-levakeR b’heikhalO)
The allusion in the verse to the Terumah teaches that when a person gives full-hearted charity, a vessel is created to receive the Supernal Pleasantness, which brings the revelation of the Divine Presence. This is the concept of “in His Chamber, everything utters Glory.”
The Only Way to Grow is to Give
B’nei Yisrael give generously, establishing charitable giving as a cornerstone of action and faith. In Shekalim of the Jerusalem Talmud it says, “Rabbi Abba ben Acha said: One can never fully understand the character of this nation. When they are asked to contribute to the Golden Calf, they give. When they are asked to contribute to the Mishkan, they give.” The Talmud goes on to teach that the gold donated toward the Mishkan atoned for the gold which was melted into creating the Golden Calf.
In the Mishneh Torah11 it says, “Even a poor person who derives his livelihood from charity is obligated to give charity (tzedakah) to another person.” You would think only people that have more than they need should give tzedakah to people in need, but for someone in need to also be obligated to give seems counter-productive. But tzedakah isn’t only physical, it’s psychological. The best way to give charity is when the giver does not know to whom they give, and the recipient does not know from whom they receive.
Greater than that, though, according to the Rambam, is “to fortify a fellow Jew and give them a gift, a loan, form with them a partnership, or find work for them, until they are strong enough so that they do not need to ask others [for sustenance].” This doesn’t sound like charity in the traditional sense, but it’s the highest form, because along with giving, it bestoys hope and dignity. And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “even more than the product was the process,” summed up in the word that gives our parashah its name, Terumah, meaning, a gift, a contribution, an offering or literally translated as, “elevation” as in לרומם/L’romem – to elevate. What we learn is that by donating something mundane for holy use, we can elevate the mundane to the sacred. It is the act of elevating elements to their Source, similar to the idea behind the brachot (blessings) on food.
Rambam breaks down the eight levels of charity, the lowest one being when one gives unwillingly. Here, Hashem instructs Moshe to have the Children of Israel give charity, but emphasizes “from those whose heart compels them.” Because what you are willing to give, from your heart with faith, is how much you are willing to bring Hashem down into the world.
Say you see a poor person in the street– sad, distraught, with no hope, on the brink of feeling as if they were dead– when you give them tzedakah from the heart, you are literally giving them life and hope. You can see it in their being; they go from darkness and despair to light and happiness. So, the money aspect of tzedakah is one part and it is needed, but when you give it from the heart, that is the part that elevates both that person and yourself. Yourself because it sweetens judgment (mamtik hadin) to truly give from the heart. In Devarim it says, “When there will be a poor person amongst you…do not tighten your heart and do not close up your hand in front of your poor brother. Rather, open your hand to him….”12 As Miles Davis said, “Don’t worry about playing a lot of notes. Just find one pretty one.” Sometimes we get stuck in over-thinking or feeling we have to do so much that we don’t do it at all, when really we need to focus on doing even just one thing, but doing it with love, with a full heart, with a smile of sincerity.
Giving is not enough if, when you give, it feels as if it’s being taken from you by the person who is receiving. There is a Chassidic story in which a wealthy individual who was known for his miserliness had decided to give Reb Shlomo of Radomsk a good amount of money as a pidyon, but R’ Shlomo refused to accept. When he was asked why he didn’t accept it, since he certainly needed the money, he simply replied, “If you had seen with what glee he took the money back, you would not have asked why I didn’t want to receive it.”13 Just as important as the act of giving is the sincerity and love in which it is given. If our heart compels us to want to hold on and not let go, it is the act of giving and letting go that we must master.
Conclusion: “The End” (by The Beatles)
The Arizal teaches that Creation came about because Hashem has a fundamental desire to give.14 Therefore, the natural state of being is one in which chesed, the bounteous and unlimited influx of Hashem’s kindness, flows freely into the world, unhampered by either sin or dinim (judgment). One of the major ways to sweeten judgment (hamtakat hadinim) is tzedakah, as it transforms dinim into chesed. We are tasked to emulate these qualities.
In Mishlei (Proverbs) it says, “There is one who gives generously yet ends with more.”15 Focusing on what you don’t have over what you do often blocks the blessings you can get. Focusing on what you can give, you turn yourself into a vessel for receiving. The Zohar says that darkness isn’t an entity unto itself, it is the absence of light. And if darkness is the absence of light, then a little bit of light, a little bit of love, will illuminate a lot of darkness. Like The Beatles said, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”16
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Notes & Sources
- Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1
- R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 526
- Sefer HaChinuch, Parashat Terumah
- Exodus 25:1-27:19
- Ibid 25:2
- Psalms 24:1
- Torat Moshe 55a ד״ה ויקחו
- Exodus 25:8
- Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmot, p. 380
- Psalms 27:4
- Matnot Aniyim – Chapter 7
- Deuteronomy 15:7
- A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah p. 262
- Eitz Chaim 1:1
- Proverbs 11:24
- “The End” by The Beatles