Making Free Will Offerings

Along with tzedakah, terumah is a vital way of sustaining our Jewish communities.

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

Parashat Terumah focuses on building the symbolic core of the Israelites: the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which will become the central shrine and sacred symbol of God’s dwelling amidst the people. The Mishkan will be a physical entity, but it will spiritually link the Israelites into a nation through God’s divine Presence. This portable structure is considered the forerunner of the Temple built in Jerusalem many generations after the wilderness experience.

Today, the synagogue, with its distinct reminders of the Tabernacle and Temple, functions as the communal focal point for the Jewish people. It, too, serves as the spiritual center connecting Jews of all generations to our history, people, and covenant.

Working For a Common Goal

The building of the Mishkan will force the Israelites to work together in order to fulfill a common goal and prepare for a common future. Although they have just been given the Decalogue-the precepts that bind the Israelites to God and one another-the people’s participation in the making of the Tabernacle will unify the nation in a different way. It will elevate the seemingly mundane work of construction into a sacred vocation, dedicated to the service of the One God who freed them from Egypt and revealed the terms of the covenant.

These former slaves are no strangers to building monuments and cities. The backbreaking labor of the Israelites in Egypt glorified the pharaoh and the Egyptian gods; but this certainly was not a sacred endeavor. In contrast, constructing the Tabernacle and all its finery will be holy work that aims to create sacred space and sacred instruments of worship.

Parashat Terumah goes into great detail about the various parts of the Tabernacle, describing the Ark of the Covenant, the special table for the bread of display, the menorah, the curtains of the tent, the parochet (partition that screens off the sacred inner sanctum), and the altar for delivering offerings to God.

In this Torah portion and the ones that follow, the design of the Tabernacle and its contents are laid out with precise measurements and great specificity. A number of these objects can be found in contemporary synagogues, reminders of the sacred structures of our biblical ancestors. Then and now, the ark stands as the epicenter of God’s presence and the container for the divine word. Many arks contain a special curtain or partition called a parochet, as in the Tabernacle. In sanctuaries today, the menorah shines as a symbol of the Jewish people, just as the ner tamid (27:20; understood as an eternal light) provides a sign of God’s indwelling presence.

Providing All the Materials

According to parashat Terumah, the Israelites women and men alike-provide not only the labor, but also the raw materials for the Mishkan. Their gifts, brought as voluntary offerings, are gathered and transformed into a place for God to reside in their midst. Imagine how these former slaves felt as they became both builders of a nation and builders of a dwelling place for the Divine!

God instructs Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (25:2). This kind of giving, a freewill offering, does not come through guilt, coercion, or competition, but from the deepest recesses of the soul. The Israelites bring yarns, precious metals, cloth, and tanned skins-an array of earthly objects that will eventually become the sacred space where Israel can seek God’s presence.

Today’s Lessons

Today, it is important for all of us to continue to make freewill offerings to the institutions that unify the Jewish people. Along with tzedakah (required giving), terumah (voluntary giving) is vital for sustaining our community. Synagogues, Jewish centers, and Jewish communal agencies cannot survive on membership fees or dues alone. As they struggle to meet their financial needs, these institutions require our heartfelt support through the freewill gifts that are necessary to fulfill the good and holy work of these organizations.

The synagogue, in particular, lies at the intersection of the earthly and heavenly realms. The heir to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting), the contemporary synagogue is the place where Jews most often seek out God.

Through study, prayer, and communal gatherings, the synagogue provides the necessary environment for Jewish connection, renewal, and survival. When we bring our voluntary gifts of money, time, and other resources, we bring the realm of the holy into our lives.

Just as our ancestors were transformed from ordinary slaves into builders of God’s home on earth, we too are transformed through this sacred endeavor. We bring more peace, more hope, and more faith into our own lives and the life of our community when we support and build the synagogue. We strengthen the Jewish people even as we strengthen ourselves as Jews.

Voluntary giving is different for each and every person; it is not simply a percentage or flat rate. A person of substantial means has the ability to give greater sums, while a person of more modest means might not have the capacity to give at such large levels. Nevertheless, each person can and should give significantly.

The definition of a “meaningful gift” varies for each individual, depending on one’s circumstances. But regardless of the quantity of the offering, the quality is the same: giving a meaningful voluntary offering to a synagogue or other Jewish institution is a privilege, not a burden. This kind of giving-be it of money or time and effort-is cheerful giving, giving that makes a difference, giving that matters. Our Torah portion teaches that the terumah-gift is an offering that comes from the deep recesses of the heart. Then and now, it is a privilege to be involved in the sacred work of building community and constructing a dwelling place for the Divine.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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