As the Torah continues the Israelites’ dramatic, people-building saga, Parashat T’rumah approaches the story from a new angle. Instead of developing the literary adventures of a no-longer-nascent people or focusing on the striking events at Mt. Sinai, this week’s Torah portion is about the details. And these details are not the specifics of community-building or daily life. Rather, they concern, in painstaking minutiae, the construction of the Tabernacle. This is a parashah about holiness, and in the case of Parashat T’rumah, the holiness is in the details.
The parashah, which spends the bulk of its time on construction measurements and the like, first focuses on the details of the rituals that surround the Tabernacle. It reads: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:1-2). While the Torah gives some examples of sample gifts for God (tough choices — would God prefer dolphin skins or acacia wood, as suggested in Exodus 25:5), generations of Jews have gravitated toward the concept of giving gifts to God.
Rashi, thinking about these issues in the 11th century, writes, “T’rumah [means] ‘something set apart.’ [T]he meaning is: let them set apart from their possessions a voluntary gift in My honor” (Rashi on Exodus 25:2). Rashi gets this reading by focusing on the end of the verse, which talks about the “person whose heart so moves him.” Rashi uses the root of the word yid’venu, “so moves,” and likens it to the word n’davah, meaning “good will.” With this connection, Rashi sees the gifts demanded by T’rumah not as dictated practice but rather as an intentional choice. Not only are the gifts voluntary, but also Rashi suggests they come from the heart as expressions of good will.
T’rumah teaches us not only how to follow the precise details of ritual practice, but also how to give of ourselves in a spiritual way. How can we think about giving gifts in a way that reflects our connection to God and our most cherished values? What would those gifts be? How would giving them change our lives?
Contemporary Judaism often connects this concept of “gifts of the heart” with action in the world. For example, when we perform tikkun olam, we may view those actions as part of what it means to live Jewishly; they exemplify Jewish commitment. In looking at that act of tikkun olam through the lens of Parashat T’rumah, we might think of that same act as a gift to God, a voluntary service of good will that makes the world just a tad bit better. When I worked as the director of year-round programming and associate director at URJ Greene Family Camp, I found that understanding Jewish commitment through acts of Jewish social justice made sense to many teens as a way of connecting to Judaism, particularly as an entry point to becoming more involved in Jewish life.
As it turns out, this approach of understanding acts of justice as gifts to God has an older basis, too. Itturei Torah, an anthology of centuries of primarily Chassidic teaching and commentary, includes this: “[Exodus] verse 2 of chapter 25 is the heart and substance of the Torah: tzedakah and good deeds.”1 Jews often talk about Judaism as a religion of action. With this approach, we can consider our acts of tzedakah and g’milut chasadim, “good deeds,” not only as the Jewish edict to fix the world as an end in itself, but also as a way of demonstrating religious commitment and spiritual connection.
Parashat T’rumah sets the stage for its intricate verses about the details of the Tabernacle with God’s request for gifts; not prescribed gifts or offerings like sacrifices, but gifts of the self and gifts of action. Even in the midst of so much instruction, the choice of whether to give a gift to God, and the option to choose what to give, demonstrates the kind of religious autonomy that Progressive Judaism reflects so well.
- Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, vol. 3, Heb. ed. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1995), p. 202
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.