Gifts Freely Given

By giving God our full presence we allow the possibility for intimate connection and for God to dwell within us.

Commentary on Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

  • God asks the Children of Israel to donate gifts (terumah) for the building of the Tabernacle so that God may “dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:1-9)
  • Instructions for the construction of the Ark, table, and menorah are provided. (Exodus 25:10-40)
  • Detailed directions are given on how to build the Tabernacle. (Exodus 26:1-27:19)

Focal Point

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:1-8)

Your Guide

Why would God, the Source of existence and the world’s substance, need or desire material gifts from the Israelite people?

God’s gift of the Torah to the Israelite people coincides with the divine call to build and furnish the Tabernacle. What connection is there between these things? Is there any significance to the order in which the three major events of the Exodus–the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the sin of the golden calf, and the building of the Tabernacle–seem to unfold?

Prior to the building of the Tabernacle, where do you think our people found “sacred space?”

What is the focal point of our own synagogue sanctuaries? What parallels exist between our sanctuaries and our people’s first worship structure, the Tabernacle?

Why did the Israelite people need a structure to feel connected to God? Where do you feel the greatest sense of spiritual uplift or connection to God? Are our contemporary sanctuaries necessary?

What is the significance of the verse “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him?” Why was the commandment to bring gifts for the building of the Tabernacle not mandatory for everyone? What would happen if paying temple dues were completely voluntary?

What is the qualitative difference between a “gift” and a “gift freely given?” What kind of gifts have you brought to your congregation or community?

Why does the Torah say, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” rather than “And let them make a sanctuary for Me in which to dwell?”

By the Way…

“Gold, silver, and copper.” The metals are listed in descending order of their value. This, in turn, determines their use for various objects [furnishing the Tabernacle and its parts]; the closer the object is to the Holy of Holies, the more valuable the metal of which it is made. Iron is notably absent…because its utilization for more efficient weapons of death made it incompatible with the spiritual ends that the Sanctuary was intended to serve. (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus)

A folk saying states, A fool gives and a wise man takes. This refers to a person who gives tzedakah. A fool who gives tzedakah thinks that he is giving, while a wise man who gives realizes that he is taking: He is the one who will benefit most by his action. (Rebbe David of Kotzk)

“That I may dwell [Hebrew, v’shachanti] among them.” The verb is the one from which Shechinah, the rabbinic term for the Divine Presence, is derived. (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J. H. Hertz, published by Soncino Press, London, 1950)

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Great is work, for even the Holy One, blessed be He, did not have the Divine Presence abide among Israel until they had worked.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan)

“That I may dwell among them.” It says “among them” and not “in its midst” to teach you that each person must build the Sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them. The Kotzker was once asked, “Where is God?” And he replied, “Wherever they let him in.” (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

Your Guide

The late professor Nehama Leibowitz asks, “What prompted the divine command to build the Tabernacle?” Based on the commentaries above, what is your opinion?

Much fruitful commentary has been generated by the qualification offered in the text: that donations for the Sanctuary should come from those whose hearts so move them. Why do you think this is so?

This is also true of the oft-quoted words “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” and the text’s use of the words “among them” (i.e., the people), as opposed to “within it” (i.e., the Tabernacle). How do you interpret the significance of this wording?

D’var Torah

Do you remember the famous musical dialogue between Tevye and Golda in Fiddler on the Roof on the subject of love? Tevye asks, “Golda, do you love me?” And she responds, “Do I what?”
Can you imagine Golda and Tevye exchanging valentines? Hardly! Valentine’s Day isn’t exactly a Jewish holiday.

It is purely an accident of the calendar that juxtaposes Shabbat Terumah with the season of Valentine’s Day. But risking a banal comparison, I suggest that Parashat Terumah is apropos for the season because it also deals with the subject of love. In this case, it is not romantic love but love in its more profound sense–love as it manifests itself in intimate personal connection, in our willingness to do for or to be fully present for another.

The parashah begins, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts.” The Torah then adds, “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”

Apparently, God does not want gifts from just anyone. The materials that are to be used to create the Mishkan (Tabernacle), to build a place of holiness, must come from those who give their gifts from their own free will. These gifts must be (to use a term from the realm of psychotherapy) ones “that are freely given.”

The road to spiritual connection is an elusive one, but those who have experienced moments of God-connection will attest that such events only come as a result of open-heartedness. Even more significantly, those who testify that they have felt a God-connection compare it to the feeling of intimacy they have experienced with other human beings.

If we accept that premise for the moment, let us try to see the God-connection from the other side. Maybe the parashah gives us an insight into what God is seeking from us. In the milieu of the Bible, terumah, sacred donations, were a popular medium through which people reached for the Divine. The Torah, speaking in God’s voice, suggests that God’s love is not for sale, that what God wants from human beings is a gift freely given. Connection with the Divine is in its higher sense “a love connection.”

God says, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Those who bring God their freely given gifts–not only material gifts but the gift of their fullest presence–invite the Divine to abide within them.

Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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