Parshat Trumah (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
In the heart of a vast desert, a large group of freed slaves is on the move. They have just fled the Egyptian empire, their pursuers having recently drowned in the sea. This group has no food sources of its own. Every day, these freed slaves receive a special type of food called manna. The food may not be kept from one day to the next, and every morning, this group replenishes its stock of food and water.
The leader of this group ascends to Mount Sinai and receives a list of basic instructions on administering the nation. The people find some of those instructions, such as the prohibition on idol worship and the obligation to observe Shabbat, quite foreign.
The leader then climbs the mountain for the second time, to continue receiving the entire Torah. When hearing all of the commandments, the whole group exclaims “we will do, and we will understand”. Some are more enthusiastic about the idea; others less so. It is as if they were telling Moshe “go for it” – let’s see where we go from here. After all, what else could he possibly make us do?
And then, in some desolate corner of the desert, Hashem proclaims that he wants a donation! The text reads:
…וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי
“… they shall take an offering for Me, from every person whose heart moves him,
you shall take My offering.”– Shemot / Exodus 25:2
It isn’t terribly difficult to imagine how people would react. They might have thought, “Oh, so they want money now, don’t they… is this why we left Egypt? Why should we volunteer, and where is this money going?”
Sure enough, the text answers these questions soon thereafter:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם
“They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” – Shemot / Exodus 25:8
It seems that Hashem wants a place to live, just like us. Everyone knows that people need a place in which to pray and pour their heart out to their Creator. They need a house of prayer, or, in modern terms, a synagogue.
However, this is not to what the verse is referring. The text emphasizes Hashem’s wish to dwell in a house. Why would Hashem, Who has neither a body nor any semblance of a body, need a dwelling? After all, “the entire world is full of His Glory” (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 6:3), and serves as His dwelling. What is behind the demand for donations?
In previous Torah portions, the nation is given dozens of commandments and laws, and then, all of a sudden, they are asked to volunteer! Why would anyone want to volunteer and contribute something to a sanctuary? What would anyone get out of it? This is especially true for a people who had experienced the trauma of slavery and hardship. They distrust their surroundings and harbor concerns over what will happen from one day to the next, and these thoughts surely make it harder for them to contribute to a cause that is both unknown and unclear.
Yet, apparently, this is exactly what the Torah intends to convey. The verse specifies that “… I shall dwell among them.” In other words, He will dwell among human beings, and not in “it” (i.e. the sanctuary). Hashem doesn’t need housing.
We would willingly host Him in our homes. It is precisely because we had grown accustomed to living as a nation of slaves, who receive orders from their masters, that we found it easy to accept the commandments at Mount Sinai. After all, this suited our slave mentality.
However, our desire, as human beings, is to do things out of the goodness of our hearts, not because we were commanded to do so. We want to do things for our souls and feel good about them, not just because we are obligated to do them.
Accordingly, the Torah wants to teach us to recognize this need and desire to do things for our soul, not just in order to earn a living or to serve other people’s interests. This is why the Torah says “from every person whose heart moves him”. We need to get used to the idea that being generous is a positive thing.
A nation cannot depend exclusively on the magnanimity of its citizens; it needs to impose taxes and draft its citizens into the military. At the same time, a society doesn’t stand a chance of surviving without a strong volunteering spirit in its men and women. Anyone who has done any volunteering – as a paramedic, in the Mishmar HaEzrachi (the civil guard), or elsewhere – knows the sense of fulfillment we feel afterwards.
Parshat Teruma comes to infuse us with the desire to continue volunteering, bearing in mind that we are building a sanctuary of giving and benevolence. “And I shall dwell among them.”