Drash on Parshat Terumah
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, South Australia
"Offerings of the Heart"
The book of Leviticus delineates a wide variety of offerings that might be brought by Jews to God: burnt offerings, sin offerings, offerings of well being, offerings made upon the fulfillment of a vow and thanksgiving offerings. Additional offerings may brought under certain circumstances, such as when one becomes aware of having committed a sin, or when one needs to be cleansed of impurity. In all of these cases, exact quantities of what is to be offered are specified. There is little wiggle room; a prescription has been issued and must be fulfilled.
The title of this week's parshah—Terumah--refers to an entirely different kind of offering. The essence of this week’s portion is found in the opening sentence: “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.’” (Exodus 25:1-2) The parshah takes its name from the word terumah, which is here translated as “gift.” A terumah is an offering without boundaries, without rules, limited only by the outpouring of one's own heart. Those who are mean-spirited and miserly will give little. Those who are overflowing with thanksgiving will perhaps give beyond their means.
Near the end of the book of Exodus, Moses comes before the people and articulates God's instructions, asking from the people their very finest materials for the sacred construction of the tabernacle and the priestly clothing. The text tells us that, despite a very long wish list, the people give in such abundance that Moses ultimately has to tell them to stop giving. Their generosity overwhelms the system.
There is much to be learned from this story. First of all, we finally have a sense of how grateful the Israelites are to God for the blessings of freedom and of the Torah. They demonstrate their love of God not through their words (which are usually complaints!) but through the extent of their gifts. They respond to God's gifts by giving gifts of their own, even when it means they keep nothing for themselves.
Secondly, this story can prove instructive for those engaged in the difficult but crucial task of raising funds for our communities. Professional fundraisers note that people respond more to the language of thanksgiving and joy than to the language of obligation and guilt. You may well have had the experience on Kol Nidre of seeing your synagogue president stand up and announce, “We need you to give generously, otherwise we’ll have to cut back on our programming.” What Moses discovers is that the more successful route is to say, “We celebrate the wonderful work of our congregation and invite you to play a part in making it even better.”
Too often, we Jews speak the language of obligation and forget that what truly touches us is the language of gratitude. Birchot HaShachar--the blessings of the dawn--are also known as nissim sheb’chol yom--the miracles of each day. How many miracles do we take for granted in our lives? How many obligations for thanksgiving pass us by? Let us be inspired by the example of our ancestors, who were so moved by the spirit of gratitude to God that they gave deeply of themselves. Shabbat shalom!