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Parashat Terumah 5784

Finding Our Treasure…

February 12, 2024
by Rabbi Enid C. Lader ('10)

We have been freed from the bondage and oppressive servitude under Pharaoh. We have crossed the narrow passageway of the Reed Sea to freedom in the wilderness. We have stood at Sinai and entered into a covenant with God, saying “Na’aseh v’Nishmah” – We will follow God’s ways and seek to understand them.

And, now, in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to collect terumah – gifts of materials and supplies from the Israelites “[a]nd let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” [Exodus 25:8]

A list [Exodus 25:3-7] has been delineated: from precious metals to precious stones, an array of yarns to animal skins and goat hair, wood, oil and spices… All of this to be brought as terumah from each person whose heart so moves them; all of this to be used for this grand construction project… in the service of God. We are no longer building “cities which are places for treasures” (see Rashi on Ex. 1:11) for Pharaoh under the duress of providing the [lowly] mud and straw for the bricks and mortar; but we are being asked to bring the best of our best to build this dwelling place for God.

What is the nature of what we are to bring? What is a terumah? According to Rashi (on Exodus 25:2), terumah is “something set apart (cf. Onkelos); the meaning is: let them set apart from their possessions a voluntary gift in My honor.”

Based on this idea of terumah as something set apart, the Hasidic leader, Rabbi Simcha Bunem (1765-1827) taught that when one engages in sacred business, they should not be caught up in the material world, but their heart and thoughts should be a “set-apart” offered in the service of God. (Kushner and Olinsky, Sparks Beneath the Surface, London: Aaronson Press, 1993, p. 94) Perhaps this list of treasures can also be understood as what each of us brings to the service of God?

Again, we turn to Rabbi Bunem for a parable:

… A chassid from Cracow, Poland named Reb Eizik had the same dream every night for a week straight. He dreamed that if he traveled to the city of Prague and dug next to the bridge adjacent to the king’s palace, he would find a priceless treasure. Reb Eizik was so intrigued by the repeated dream that he decided to undertake the journey to dig next to the bridge in Prague.

When he arrived there, he was dismayed to see that the bridge was carefully guarded by the king’s soldiers. There was no way they would allow him to dig anywhere in the vicinity of the bridge. Reb Eizik stayed in a nearby inn overnight and came back the next day to see if there was any lapse in the soldier’s shifts when he might be able to quickly dig. But the next day proved no better and Reb Eizik could do nothing more than wander aimlessly near the bridge and contemplate what he would do with the treasure.

After a few days of wandering near the bridge, one of the soldiers demanded to know what he was doing there. Reb Eizik decided to tell the soldier the truth. The soldier burst out laughing. “You silly Jew, are you so naïve to believe in dreams? Why, just last night I had a dream that if I traveled to Cracow and found a Jew there named Eizik, and I dug underneath the oven in his house, I would find a priceless treasure. Do you think I am going to run to Cracow to dig under his oven, because of a silly dream?!”

Reb Eizik was stunned! He had come all the way to Prague to find out that the treasure he was seeking was in his own home. He immediately returned home and dug underneath his oven. Sure enough, he found an incredible treasure buried there. Reb Eizik became instantly wealthy. He used a portion of the money to build the famous, “Eizik Shul” in Krakow.

Each of us holds that special treasure that is unique to us, and as Martin Buber explains:

“… the place where that treasure may be found is the place where one stands… Here, where we stand, is the place where we can let the hidden divine light shine… It shines when we recognize our relationship with each person, each important part of our world… If we regard nothing but the bare utility of the beings and things that are part of our lives (as we are part of theirs), and neglect to establish a genuine relationship with them, then we ourselves, miss the true fulfillment of our being.” (Martin Buber, The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching, New York: CCAR Press, 2023, pps. 34-37)

We are called upon to see the human-ness, not the thing-ness of each other. “Thing-ness” is Egypt; seeing the “human-ness” in each other is freedom and being in the realm of the Divine.

There is a well-known story told of the great Hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk:

He asked some learned men who were visiting him, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” Laughing, they responded, “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole earth full of God’s glory?” [Isaiah 6:3]

Menachem Mendel then answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, New York: Schocken Books, 1948, p. 277)

Each of us holds our own special treasure, our gift, our set-apart, to help establish a dwelling place for God.
Rabbi Enid Lader (AJR ’10) is the Rabbi Emerita of Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a member of the Association of Rabbis and Cantors, and is the secretary for AJR’s Board of Trustees.