Shabbat Terumah: The Gift of Your Life

What are you supposed to be doing with your one, wild, precious life? After all, it will all end, and too soon.
The parashat hashavua this week is Terumah, “gift”, a word that speaks of a free-will offering that comes from the heart, chosen by the giver out of the joy of the chance to share of oneself. Our Israelite ancestors this week are invited to participate in the process of creating the first Jewish sacred space, the mishkan, by bringing any gift that they are moved to bring, from their hearts, of themselves. The gifts range across the entire spectrum of building materials, from the structural to the decorative.
“From everyone whose heart moves them, let them bring gifts….to make a sacred space.” (Exodus 25.2,8)
The most touching part of this story is the eagerness with which the Israelites accept the invitation, bringing so much that Moshe has to call an end to the giving when they have brought more than can possibly be needed. This is the nature of giving from the heart: it overflows boundaries, flows without stint, without calculation, without fear that there somehow won’t be enough to go around.
Every day you give the gift of yourself to the world, and to the people around you. But it can be difficult to give from the heart; the walls we build around ourselves out of fear of being hurt – or fear of the world – can make it hard for the heart’s small chirp of longing to get through. Here I am, it says, here is what I give – please accept this gift from me, of me. And alas, sometimes the fear of our gift’s rejection is well-founded; we can be misunderstood, we can be mis-timed, we can be disappointed.
Yet our parashah conveys the underlying lesson for Jewish community – for all community – here most clearly demonstrated by the fact that the gifts of all Israelites were equally necessary and equally acceptable. No one was told that they were of the wrong gender, age, color, social status, or physical ability to give. All gifts from the heart, expressing the essence of the giver, were equally needed and equally precious.
It is not a holy space unless all give of themselves, from the heart. It is not a holy space until each who gives from the heart is equally celebrated for that gift.
And the promise, if we truly learn to value each other’s gifts of the heart as equally precious? “[G*d] will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8) Nothing less than this: the holiness we are capable of creating in our community when we are able to bring, each of us, the true expression of the heart to our community. No holds barred, no walls behind which we can hide, no assuming we will get hurt so that we never really open up….in other words, trust.
Trust is a big word these days, because trust is not a guarantee, and we see that so clearly on a day in which we are mourning another instance of senseless, murderous violence grown out of the dysfunction of our society. Trust is not in outcomes – this is the hard part – but in the glory of trusting in the good that still exists, each day, even on the terrible days when we are left speechless, our arms empty.
It’s almost a form of defiance, to nevertheless, in spite of everything, believe, as Anne Frank famously wrote, that “people are really good at heart,” and to continue to uphold the first rule of Jewish community ethics, which is to assume the best of others, and to give each person the benefit of the doubt. Without that trust, the heart stays closed tight out of fear. Somewhere in the wilderness in which we spend our lives, each of us searches for the holy space that will finally accept us. It is not some other community you have not yet found, where the human beings are somehow more perfect: it is this one in front of you, this one of which you are a part, this one that can love you. This one, in which you can truly live the life you are meant to live.

Shabbat Terumah: Keep the Fire Burning

In parashat Terumah we read of the ner tamid. You have perhaps noticed this light, since its direct descendant brings illumination in every shul in the world, usually somewhere near the Ark. It is often referred to as the “Eternal Light”. 

But as we look at the verse that presents it, we see something a bit different: You shall command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to lift up the light regularly. (Ex. 27.20)

The word tamid in the Torah can mean “regular” or “uninterruptedly”, depending on which scholar you read. (For more on this and lots of other fascinating ancient Hebrew terms, see the website Balashon). What it does not mean is “miraculously eternally automatically”.

This leads to a visual of some ancient priest whose regular job is to ensure that this fire, this ner tamid, does not EVER go out – wind, rain, even the occasional snow notwithstanding. 

What was so special about this fire? Only this: its origin was a bolt of fire that came directly from the Eternal (Lev. 9.24.). The fire itself came from G-d; all the priest had to do was to tend it, not to let it go out. Eternal fire, but only if it is tended.

The fire has been compared in a Hasidic parable to our own, human “fire” – that of enthusiasm, of caring, of believing. The fire in our hearts also comes from an Eternal Source, after all. Our parashah hints that, even as the Divine fire on the altar needs help to stay bright and powerful, and similarly, so you have to tend your fire on your altar – that is, your heart – if it is to stay strong.

How do you tend your fire – how do you stay open to moments that illuminate, and let them bring you joy? Here are a few suggestions from our tradition:

* Rabbi Eliezer said: A person only has to choose whether to eat and drink or to sit and study [to experience joy]. Rabbi Joshua said: Divide it—half [of the holiday] to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of study. (Talmud Bavli, Pesakhim 68b)

* Join the communal observance of holidays even if you don’t feel like it. The festival observances allow us to help each other arouse an inner sense of joy that we cannot always find alone. (Rav Soloveitchik)

* Just as lightning breaks through heavy clouds and illuminates the earth, so tzedakah gives light to the heart.  (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady)

It is written: “You are my witnesses, says the Eternal, and I am your G-d. This is to say that if we are not witnesses, then G-d is – if we could say such a thing – not G-d.” There is no such thing as an Eternal fire unless we feed it; as we strengthen our own hearts and help each other, we are keeping alive and strong the fire of our witness of G-d’s presence, and of our religious tradition’s Eternal demand for the justice and ethics that comes from the illumination of that fire.

Shabbat Terumah: Making a Place for God

We have left Egypt, and at the foot of Mt. Sinai we have witnessed a great and ineffable moment of connection with That Which Cannot Be Named, and which nevertheless worked to link all of us together with certainty in that mystery. We were going forward together, as a people.

But not yet. In this week’s parashah, we are still camped at Sinai, in the days and weeks after the climactic moments of awe and exhilaration. Now what? It is clear that the world is different, is newly-begun; what is not so clear yet is the way in which we will move into it.

Somehow, the impetus to build a holy place came forth from that time. It is interesting to consider what it means to call a place holy.

There are some awesome holy places in the world, places built specifically so that we could seek G-d’s presence. There are cathedrals, temples, mosques, and, of course, shuls. This past week I was privileged to encounter the heiau, the Hawaiian holy place, and to learn about its construction. A heiau is constructed of lava rocks, some of them quite dense and heavy, which are moved great distances by human chains, people handing the rocks from one to the next, hundreds and even thousands of people all working together. A heiau can measure as much as 140 by 180 feet and be 30 feet high. That’s a lot of rocks, and even more coordinated action bringing together a huge number of people.

All communal holy places seem to have this in common: it takes many people to create one. As our parashat hashavua puts it, every member of the Israelite community is called upon to participate, to bring a terumah, an offering of that which they are and which they have to give. There is work for all, with only one requirement: “all whose hearts so move them.” (Exodus 25.2) 

Our hearts have to be in the work, or it can’t be holy. In other words, there many be many shuls, churches, temples, and mosques which are glorious and grand, but unless we are all involved in the building, and our hearts are truly in it, it won’t be a holy place. We can’t all carry heavy rocks, and not all of us can design a Sukkah that will stay up a week, much less a shul, but all of us have the gift of our joy and intention.

“Where is G-d?” the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked. “Where?” he replied, “wherever you let G-d in.”

What are you involved in building in your life? a project, a program, a kitchen remodel? On this Shabbat consider: even as a shul is not a holy place unless our hearts are in it, so also, in every place in which you are truly there with an open heart, that place is holy. And then you will understand the insight of the Shelah, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (called the Shelah after the acronym of the name of his most well-known book of Torah commentary, the Shnei Lukhot HaBrit):

They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them (25:8)

The verse does not say, “and I will dwell within it,” but “and I will dwell within them”–within each and every one of them. (the Shelah)

Parashat hashavuah: Terumah – Lift It Up

The parashat hashavua this week begins with a command: “Tell the Israelite people that when they take up an offering for Me; every person whose heart is moved to generosity can make that offering.” (Exodus 25.2) This begins the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the sacred space in which the Israelite people would focus upon being in God’s Presence (Hebrew: Shekhinah).
True, many generations later we are used to the teaching that God’s presence may be found anywhere; but that does not keep us for needing special, sacred places ourselves – places that serve as agreed-upon meeting places for us to come together for no less than the purpose of experiencing theShekhinah, the close and intimate Presence of God. 
You who belong to a shul, or are considering joining one, might not have thought of your shul that way: as a place where you come to focus upon the experience of being immersed in God’s Presence. But if the place is devoid of that possibility, it may be beautiful, but it’s not a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Shekhinah;  conversely, the shabby rooms of our European shtetl dwelling ancestors were sometimes so full of that awareness that those who prayed there were able to rise above their everyday miseries because of the bliss of that awareness.
The parashah goes on to describe exactly how the Mishkan is to be built, in great detail. Facsimiles of this structure have been constructed on the web, in miniature, and – I’ve been told but have not seen – in full size, somewhere in the Negev. Gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, woods of various kinds – but the most important detail is given us at the start: all must be built out of material which is terumah, translated in two ways: “separated”, and “lifted up”.
Separated (Rashi): Halakhah guides us to understand that out of all our regular possessions and resources we should separate the first and best out for God. This is also the idea behind the ma’aser, “tithe”, which our farmer ancestors were to bring of their crops. Until the appropriate tithes had been separated out and given appropriately, the rest of the crop was not kasher (literally, “fit”)and could not be eaten. That which is kosher, in other words, is that which reflects our own spiritual awareness of the blessing of a successful crop, or job, or project. It is not ours, not all ours – as the President put it in a sound bite that could not be savaged quite to death, “you didn’t build that”. None of us builds alone: we are part of a fantastic network of support, resources and factors beyond our control, and our response to our own successes should be humble gratitude, not the self-celebrating arrogance of believing that we have power.
Lifted up (Zohar, II): As the Jewish mystics intuited, everything in our existence is made of the same stuff. Everything has within it a spark of G-d; not only human beings but all of the material world – even gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, and woods of various kinds. One should not overlook the holy potential of any object, much less any person. What makes the difference is, as the Torah indicates, the “heart moved to generosity”. The spark of holiness in any object is lifted up through the mindfulness of the one who makes the offering. That is true of the offering we make of our words and acts as well.
An offering made by rote, or with resentment, can never be part of a mishkan. 
No volunteer work undertaken for a shul done with anger, annoyance or the hope of being noticed will ever evoke the Shekhinah. 
But every offering made by one whose heart is moved to generosity, large or small, obvious or unmarked, lifts up the offering and its holy potential all the way to God’s Presence. 
This is the only way we make a mishkan, a shul, into a sacred space, and it is more beautiful by far than a gilded, ornate building created without true terumah.
May you see the beauty of your offering of volunteer activity, tzedakah, and committee work as a true terumah and the very sacred essence of the Mishkan, both inside and outside of organized Judaism.