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Parashat Terumah

February 2, 2011
by Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum

We’ve just passed through January, so Americans now emerge from our Festivals of Football and Fast Food Feasting. Some hold season tickets and don’t miss a game. Some go occasionally, braving frigid winds to cheer their teams to victory. Some bring a dish to Superbowl parties or take a peek at clever commercials. Some catch a score and some await the headlines. Some do not relate at all to the festivities or the baffling sport.

It’s much the same in the Jewish world, if we believe studies on synagogue or organizational affiliation. Some are avid supporters year ’round and make attendance a priority. Others enjoy the spectacle of a special holiday service or pitch in to help a cause that means something to them personally. Some show up not knowing what it’s all about and some are just not all that interested.

A close reading of this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (contribution, offering), shows that the individuals of the Jewish community have always manifested differing degrees of attachment to the workings of the whole.

At the beginning of our parashah, God instructs Moses about taking gifts from “anyone whose heart makes him willing (yid’vennu)” (Ex. 25:2). Surely, if the contributions were expected from everyone (like the ½ shekel head-tax), “willingness” would not have entered into the instructions. And, if this were to be a typical freewill offering, the related word n’davah could have been used (as in Lev. 22:21). Neither type of offering fits the situation. God recognizes that there are some whose hearts will move them to participate in this building project and some whose hearts will not. If we could explain the less-than-unanimous response among those who had witnessed the miracles performed in Mitzrayim (Egypt), perhaps we would understand the reactions of those in the Jewish community today whose hearts don’t seem to make them willing contributors.

There are possible answers in the text itself. First, God tells Moses, “speak to the Israelites v’yiqhu for me a contribution.” In Hebrew, v’yiqhu can mean ‘and they will take’ or ‘so that they may take.’ If Moses speaks to them effectively enough, their hearts and minds will respond and they will take part. If Moses fails to make a compelling appeal, they may not give. This is a sobering thought for all who try to make the case for giving to Jewish causes. Even though Moses could suggest many types of giving opportunities suited to different levels of ability to contribute, there was still the possibility that his words would not hit their mark.

What is reassuring to us who find ourselves in similar positions today is that God does not utter words of blame either about Moses-who may not have inspired 100% participation-or about those who are not willing to give in the suggested ways. God just goes on with the plans for the gathering of materials with which to make vessels, trappings, vestments, unguents and incense. At the end of the list, God says somewhat ambiguously “and they will (or: may) make for me a consecrated place so that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Who or what will make that miqdash (consecrated place)? Will it be the items contributed that make the fitting place for God’s presence, or the people who contribute them, or all the people whether they give material gifts or not?

Creating a sacred place willingly from our own gifts allows us a way of accessing the presence of God in a comforting and time-tested manner. We are drawn to our houses of worship partly because they are in-and-of-themselves designated as holy and partly because we see that by the work of our hands we have allowed the Holy One to dwell among us all. Others may not be drawn to seek holiness in the same way or in the same place. Perhaps the gifts they are willing or able to bring are not yet understood by us. Even the items listed in our Torah portion are interpreted in different ways by our commentators!

When we speak to those who are not affiliated, let us seek to find ways to accept their gifts, turning them to the purpose of bringing a sense of the holy to our sometimes fractured community. But let us also understand that there will always be those who are season ticket holders and those who might bring something delicious to our gatherings and those who ignore the game completely. As the Holy One took this in stride and continued with the plans for dwelling among us, so may we take it in stride and continue our work of creating sacred spaces welcoming to the presence of God and of fellow humans alike.


Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum received semikhah from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2008. She is the rabbi of B’nai Harim of Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania.