Parshat Teruma: Finding Happiness in Siberia
Rabbi Dr. David Rozenson learned at Yeshivat Hamivtar from 1994-2001, and received his semicha from the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary. He is the Executive Director of Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem.
In the late 1990s, while still a student at Yeshivat Hamivtar, I had the unique privilege of traveling to the former Soviet Union to teach and lead educational seminars for the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and for Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz obm.
As a part of my work, I headed an initiative in far-flung communities in Siberia where there were many Jews but few possibilities for Jewish education. Crossing the great expanse of Siberia in planes, trains and in old, creaky Soviet cars together with Russian-speaking educators, we created a Jewish studies program where participants on a monthly basis received newly written materials on different areas of Jewish thought. The educational program was buttressed by four annual seminars in which hundreds of program participants came together for a week of study that included Shabbat and a separate program for children.
It was at one of these seminars that took place in an old soviet retreat center in the city of Irkutsk (those of us old enough may remember the odd sounding city name from playing Risk) that I spent Shabbos of parashat Teruma.
Friday morning, the sun had still not fully risen as I join a circle of young to middle-aged men and women, already sitting with brown-colored notebooks, the kind with narrow blue squares instead of lines, pens in hand. The Soviet education system at work.
Its freezing cold outside, but the central heating inside the large room with brown-colored couches, thick double windows, and an odd set of leafy plants in large white plastic pots placed strategically to cover up cracks in the padded and water-stained wallpaper, caused the room to be stifling hot. Open up a small window, and the wind would attack; keep it closed and you begin to sweat. It was a constant battle. Despite it all, we somehow managed to meet and study for hours, with breaks for strong coffee and thick-dough pastries filled with cabbage (I think) in-between.
Before beginning to introduce and learn the parasha, we spoke about the month of Adar and I quoted the Talmud in Ta’anit 29a (a page of which, together with some Rashi’s, I had translated into Russian):
Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel ben Shilat, said in the name of Rav:
Just as when the month of Av begins we diminish our happiness, so too, when Adar begins, we increase in our happiness.
We then read Rashi, who clarifies that the reason that we increase our happiness is that these are days that represent miraculous times for the Jewish nation, referring to the miracles of Purim and Pesach, a time that will always shine with goodness for the Jewish people.
Dima, a young man with an aged cap pulled over a full head of hair, who was following the reading with a pencil moving over each word, looked up at me in surprise. Dressed in an oversized striped denim jacket on top of a nylon blue tracksuit with white stripes running along the sides and the words “Made in the USA” emblazoned on one pant leg, Dima was a man with questions.
“Wait, Purim is Purim” he said, “but how can I rejoice? I have all these problems, all these worries, how can I be told to increase my joy?” I looked at Dima and knew I needed an answer that would speak to him. The Jewish nation could wait.
I took a deep breath, looked up at the eyes waiting for a response, and said, Dima, let us look at this week’s parasha. Through Moshe, Hashem speaks to the children of Israel and commands them, “ויקחו לי תרומה”(“they should collect for Me, or on My behalf, a gift”) – Hashem doesn’t say, “give me a portion” but “take for me a portion.”
Why the odd manner of speech? Perhaps what the Torah is teaching us is that when a person does something for another, helps another, in truth what he is doing is “taking for himself!”
There are people, I tried to explain to Dima and his thick plastic glasses and Made in America tracksuit, for whom happiness is getting something. If a person buys a new car, a new dress, a new tracksuit, then happiness will come. Unfortunately, this kind of happiness is not long lasting. Tomorrow, there will be a new car model, the next day, a new American-made tracksuit, the next day, another new toy.
There are people who have many things, but that does not mean that they are happy. There are others, who live in modesty but are happy people. Happiness, the Torah is teaching us, is not what one has, but what one gives. When we think of others, care for others and for society around us, we get back far more in return.
The month of Adar is the month of joy for us all. It is a time when we give presents to others – and we discussed the laws and meaning of mishloach manot – and that is precisely the message. By enabling others to have joy, we bring happiness to ourselves.
But, I added, it is not the Marxian or communist-type of giving. Rashi immediately points out that the words “For Me” means that the portion has to be collected in the name of Hashem. The person who does the collecting, has to do it for a higher purpose, not for himself. That is when we experience true happiness.
Years later, I would see the commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks obm:
Hence the unusual Hebrew word for contribution, Terumah, which means not just something we give but something we lift up. The builders of the sanctuary lifted up their gift to God, and in the process of lifting, discovered that they themselves were lifted.
This was my answer to Dima and the group of Russian Jews in Siberia. In his inquisitive manner, Dima then asked me whether when we give to others, we make a blessing like we do over tefillin or other mitzvot. And again, when we give, can we do so with an ulterior motive? He asked me many questions, including the best one I got that weekend: where, in my opinion, is the best place to invest? My answers to these questions, all of which are connected to our parasha, I will leave for another time…
Postscript: Today, Dima lives with his family in Israel and works as a computer engineer. He also studies Torah, his children served in the IDF, and he already has several sabra grandchildren. Suffice it to say, he has given me back far more happiness than I could have ever imagined when I first met him all those years ago in Irkutsk.
And a final postscript: many years after returning from Siberia, Rabbi David Ebner, a beloved teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar, with whom I have a weekly chavrusa to this day, pointed out that the Hebrew word for to give, נתן, is a palindrome (involving things that reads the same backward as forward). Another way of expressing the thoughts above…