Parashah Ponderings

Not All of Worth is Worthy

Terumah / תרומה
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Have you ever had the experience of giving a gift, sharing an idea, or making a joke only to find out that your well-intended “offering” is not welcome? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Even though we are moved to contribute to others what we believe is of value, we often find that others don’t share our assessment of our contribution; for whatever reason, they don’t see in that gift, idea or quip the same worth or worthiness that we see. At these times, it’s not pleasant to feel rebuffed or rejected, but that’s life.

It is true that certain circumstances call for taking risks, saying what’s on our minds even though others may not agree with us or giving a precious gift even if we don’t know how it will be received. If we constantly shy away from offering our thoughts or going for broke, we may never progress. It’s not likely that any of us are wrong all the time, after all. Eventually, we’ll present something acceptable that may also turn out to be the critical missing peace of a complex puzzle.

That said, we are still wise to be thoughtful in our contributions. In making our free-will offerings we should consider how our offerings will be accepted and be aware of what offerings are actually needed. If, for example, someone is baring her soul to us about a very serious matter, we probably don’t want to be making silly puns. (I know from experience!) A thoughtful gesture of reassurance, however, would probably be appreciated.

This lesson applies to communal life as much as to our personal lives. Communities need their members to provide certain resources necessary for the well-being of the community: money, food, material goods, brain power, leg work, and the like. Without these things, bills would go unpaid, the lights would be shut off, people would go hungry, things wouldn’t get done. In short, it is important that we, as members of different communities, know what is needed and contribute as we are able.

While communities rely on philanthropy, we should also know that not all contributions are welcomed. Lots of people, for example, generously donate old books to their synagogue library. The problem is most synagogue libraries barely have room for their current collection. When they do have room, libraries usually give priority to new books or particularly important or, perhaps, rare books. Even then, if the books are covered with dust mites, any responsible librarian would reject the donation or toss the books immediately into the trash. The point being that even in the context of exercising our philanthropic impulses, we must be aware of what our communities really need and what they don’t need.

This is a lesson taught in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, where we read (Exodus 25:1-9):

The Lord 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. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.

For our biblical ancestors, there was no more sacred structure than the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that would later become the model for the Temple in Jerusalem. In the biblical imagination, this was God’s home. This was where the priests could be closest to God at the holiest times of the year. Moreover, they imagined that God was the architect and designer of the sanctuary and that God knew exactly what was needed to build it.

The first requirement for God’s sanctuary, before all the “stuff,” was an open heart. Before the list of fabrics, skins, gems, and other materials that would be required for the sanctuary, there appears an injunction to take contributions only from those people whose hearts so moved them. Love of God and community, in effect, was the glue that bound all the other materials together. Indeed, as a nod to Valentine’s Day, I once referred to the Tabernacle as God’s and Israel’s “love shack,” a place where the Jewish people could demonstrate their devotion to God and God could be “emotionally accessible” to the people.

But what were the materials that God wanted for the Divine dwelling? God gave Israel a very specific shopping list. The medieval, Italian rabbi Obadiah Sforno, observes in his commentary to Exodus 25:3 that “no substitutes for the materials listed would be acceptable, such as perishables for instance.” He continues:

Even the kind of gemstones (pearls, for instance) not usable for Aaron’s breastplate, were not accepted. The only type of contributions that were accepted were those that in themselves would be usable in the construction of the Tabernacle and its paraphernalia.

Had we beem there when Moses spoke, we might have asked, “Why these materials and not others?” That’s an interesting question that might have given us solace when Moses then rejected the treasured possessions we had so lovingly brought to the building of God’s home. At the end of the day, however, the answer would have been, “God said so,” and that would have been enough. After all, we love God and want to make God happy.

This story should give us pause when we seek to build God’s dwellings in our own day. We may think everything we possess is worthy to go into the sanctuaries, literal or metaphorical, that we build. That thought is laudable in so far as it expresses our desire to give our “all” to God and community. Nonetheless, sometimes what God and community need is not our “all” but our “some,” some very specific things that will add sanctity to the dwelling. Anything else will be extraneous or, worse, distracting, for while God certainly has a good sense of humor, God can be temperamental, and sometimes even the best puns are best left for another time, if ever.

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