Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
One of the remarkable characteristics of Toraitic law is that most of the 613 Commandments do not follow the “if – then” formula. “If – then” laws are far more common in the secular world, and most legal systems would not function well without them. What is an “if – then” law? If a crime is committed then there will be a specific punishment or penalty; and as a deterrence, the worse the crime, the harsher the punishment.
While there are some exceptions, the Torah does not generally take this approach. At Sinai while giving the 10 Commandments, God does not say: ‘this is the penalty for murder.’ Instead, God simply says: “Don’t murder.” [Ex. 20:12] Why does this distinction matter? The “if – then” model assumes that we will commit crimes and establishes a system for handling crime and punishment. Torah does not. By saying “don’t murder,” God effectively places the responsibility solely upon us, reminding us that we are perfectly capable of not committing murder. We are capable of living to a higher standard.
This does not mean that we will, or that it will be easy to maintain that higher standard. We are, however, capable. It will require effort, and even hard work – and that work begins with parashat Terumah.
In last week’s portion, following the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites say to Moses: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will heed.” [Ex. 24:78]. Then Moses heads up to the mountain to receive the commandments, where he will be for 40 days.
Terumah begins with a strange commandment, given that Moses is supposed to be up on the mountain:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a gift from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.’” [Ex. 25:1-2]
The purpose of these gifts is to build the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where God will ‘dwell’ in the midst of the camp; and this verse has become the clarion call for of every synagogue capital campaign since. The rabbis wonder, however, why the command is for us to take God a gift, rather than give God a gift. The answer is surprising. While giving a gift of tzedakah is a great mitzvah, taking a gift suggests that we are participating in the work of delivering the gift directly to the beneficiary. In other words, we are doing the work of collecting tzedakah, instead of stopping at the point of contribution.
Yet, if we are commanded to take a gift, then why is it according to how our hearts may urge us?
The midrash (Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu) says that the moment the Israelites said “we will do and we will heed” that God immediately told Moses, “Let them take Me an offering/gift.” The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught: “If a person feels an urge to perform a commandment, he should take this urge and convert it to action, or else the urge will soon disappear without a trace.” His student, the Sadeh Margalit then taught: “Therefore, following all the enthusiasm which resulted from the receiving of the Torah, God said to Moses, ‘Take this enthusiasm and transform it into action – by building the Sanctuary.’”
So, we are not to give gifts, but make the extra effort to bring our gifts to God; and we are to especially look for those opportunities to act when our hearts are moved and filled with spiritual enthusiasm. But what does any of this have to do with choosing a higher standard over the “if – then” system?
It all comes back to the idea of a willing heart. In another midrash, Exodus Rabbah, we read:
“At the time that the Holy Blessed One told Moses about all the tasks associated with the (building of the) Tabernacle, Moses said before him; ‘Master of the universe will the Israelites be able to do this?’ The Holy Blessed One said to him ‘Even (a single) one of the Israelites could do it.’ As it is written ‘of every man whose heart is willing.’” [Exodus Rabbah, chapter 33]
Every single one of us capable alone of building a Sanctuary for God in our midst. And when we talk about bringing our gifts as an offering, it does not just mean physical wealth, but also our other gifts – our skills, our wisdom, our knowledge, our strength and our hearts.
Our camp now spans the world rather than base of Sinai, and we no longer have a mishkan as described in this portion. However, every generation can build a place for God in our midst. We can live to the higher standard. We are eminently capable. Torah says so.
All we need are willing hearts, and the discipline to turn our commitment into action.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras