Terumah 5781 – The First Fundraiser

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In parshah Terumeh, the Israelites change from a people who always complained in order to get something to a people who had to work together to build the Mishkan. Here, God gave them something else entirely. It had nothing to do with physical needs and everything to do with psychological, moral, and spiritual needs. God gave them the opportunity to give.

As a result, our parshah deals with what could be called the first fundraising campaign in history. Moses initiated it in order to build the sanctuary in the wilderness as well as to acquire all the materials needed for the special utensils required for the sacred services

Convincing people to part with their hard-earned funds and possessions to support even a worthy institution is not easy. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to convince a group of people recently out of slavery to make contributions to build a house of worship for a God who was invisible to them.  Talk about a hard sell.

After Moses had given God’s instructions to the people and explained the opportunity that each had to make a contribution, he dismissed them. It is not until later, after the people had been dismissed, that the people began bringing their offerings for God. With all due respect to modern-day fundraisers, they would never think of dismissing a congregation until after they had made a commitment to give a particular sum. They would press the Israelites to make an on-the-spot commitment. They would have passed out pledge cards to sign, so that the enthusiasm of the moment was not lost.  But Moses dismissed the people, so they had time to themselves, apart from any outside pressure, to determine what they could and should contribute. This insured the fact that the gifts were, indeed, voluntarily donated, and not obtained under some kind of emotional or psychological duress or peer pressure. As a result, the gifts were given willfully and joyfully.

Giving for the Mishkan did not need to be mandatory because the motivation of the Israelites was extremely high. The tabernacle was the means for God to personally dwell among his people. This was a one-time need, for which the people had been amply enabled to contribute. This was an opportunity which would be of great personal benefit to the donor.

The gifts of the Israelites were abundantly given. While virtually everyone gave something for the Mishkan, each one gave in accordance with what he or she was able to give.  The text informs us that the gifts exceeded the need, so that Moses had to request that the people to stop giving.  That had to be first and probably last time people were asked to stop giving to a fund-raising campaign.

To help us appreciate the fact that the giving for the construction of the Mishkan required great sacrifice on the part of the Jews, the Torah uses the word Terumeh. Terumeh can be translated as a contribution, but it actually has a subtly different meaning for which there is no simple English equivalent. It means” something you lift up” by dedicating to a sacred cause. You lift it up, then it lifts you up. One of the best ways of elevating our spiritual heights is to give in gratitude for the fact that things have been given to us.  A sense of self-worth comes from knowing that we can give away something of value without feeling diminished.

There is an unusual expression in God’s words to Moses in our parshah: v’yikchu li terumeh-you shall take for me a contribution.  Why take? Surely, give would be the more appropriate word. But because in giving we are also receiving, the word take is also appropriate.

When we think of charity, we think of Tzadekah. But Tzedakah literally means righteousness in Hebrew. In the Bible, tzedakah is used to refer to justice, kindness, and ethical behavior. It is in the post-biblical Hebrew that tzedakah refers to charity, giving to those in need. The words justice and charity have different meanings in English. How is it that in Hebrew, one word, tzedakah, has been translated to mean both justice and charity? This translation is consistent with Jewish thought as Judaism considers charity to be an act of justice.

Most Jewish homes have had a blue and white tin box, the pushke, for the deposit of tzedakah coins for charity. Jewish children learn the responsibility is to care for other Jews in need. Though the methods are now more complex, the motivation for tzedakah has endured through the centuries: to sustain the Jewish people, to enhance Jewish life and to strengthen the Jewish community for today and the future.

In Hebrew, the word meaning” to give” is Natan. In Hebrew and in English, the word is a palindrome which is read the same forward and backward. So, when we think about philanthropy and the idea of “to give,” it is also about” to receive.”

Tzedakah has two aspects: one with the hand and one with the heart. Judaism teaches the belief that donors benefit from tzedakah as much or more than the recipients and the belief remains a common theme in Jewish tradition.

There is a strange provision of Jewish law that embodies the idea of tzedakah.  ” Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another person.” On the face of it, this makes no sense at all. Why should a person who depends on charity be obligated to give charity? The principle of tzedakah is surely that one who has more than they need should give to one who has less. The truth is, however, that tzedakah is not only directed to someone’s physical needs but also their psychological needs.  The law is telling us something very profound. Giving confers dignity. Receiving does not.

To repeat, the truth is that in giving, we actually receive more than we give. The very fact that we have done good, that which is right and noble, gives us a sense of satisfaction. Someone said that the takers of the world might eat better. But the givers of the world sleep better. What we truly have in this world is that which we give away.

So, whenever you think you’re a big deal because you did something for good cause, remember that you are receiving much more than you are giving.

Today, it is important for all of us to continue to make free will offerings to institutions that unify Jewish people. Our Torah portion teaches us that the terumeh gift is an offering that comes from the deep recesses of the heart. May we all be lifted up; but, more importantly, may we lift up others.