Parashat Terumah: A nation of the generous-hearted

The greatest danger to sacred sites everywhere is that they become the property of one single person or of a small group within the nation.

THE MISHKAN tent. (Wikimedia Commons) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE MISHKAN tent. (Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s parasha deals completely with its title – Terumah, or contribution. Parashat Terumah focuses entirely on the detailed and organized process of building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle – the temporary temple that functioned for centuries until the establishment of the Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

One of the basic concepts that accompanied the building of the Mishkan was the widespread, public participation of the entire nation in its construction. The Mishkan, which was actually the Nation of Israel’s first temple, was not built with a donation of one single wealthy person, and not even with donations of a group of wealthy and generous donors. It was built – intentionally – from small donations that were collected from each separate individual in Am Yisrael.

What is the purpose of such a complicated method of collecting donations? Why not turn to one of the wealthier people with the means to build the Mishkan from top to bottom? What we see here is the Divine will to have each member of the nation become a full partner in the great spiritual project of constructing the Mishkan. 

The greatest danger to sacred sites everywhere is that they become the property of one single person or of a small group within the nation. This sort of situation can turn the Mishkan into a place disconnected from wide segments of the nation; a situation that the Torah wished to prevent at all costs.

But beyond this, there is an additional purpose in this method of building the Mishkan. The purpose is emphasized in the following verses:

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

“…from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering” (Exodus 25:2).

“…every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering…” (Exodus 35:5).

“Every man and woman whose heart inspired them to generosity to bring…” (Exodus 35:29).

What is the constantly repeated refrain in the description of the contribution to the building of the Mishkan? It is that same “generous hearted” quality required for someone to give of his wealth to any lofty goal.

In an ancient translation of the Torah, called “Targum Yonatan,” an interesting addition appears for this verse: “From every person whose heart inspires him to generosity – not through violence.” Meaning, that same contribution that every Jew brought to the Mishkan was meant to come from the generosity of his heart, and as a result of goodwill, and not through coercion. 

Here we return to the additional goal accomplished by involving the entire nation in the building of the Mishkan. The contribution, beyond it being a good and beneficial action, is also an educational one. When a person gives of himself, and does this without external coercion but rather from his own goodwill, he becomes “generous-hearted.” A person who manages to put his hand in his own pocket and then extends it in love of another person or worthy goal is a person whose heart has become sensitive, loving and compassionate.

The building of the Mishkan was meant to be done with the cooperation of the entire nation because beyond the Mishkan itself, there is an educational goal as well. God’s will was that the entire nation partake in the contribution so that the entire nation becomes one that acts as an example and symbol to all of humanity in its treatment of the other, in sharing in another person’s hardship, in compassion and interpersonal relationships that are “a light unto nations” – a moral torch that illuminates the entire world.

Therefore, our parasha begins with “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” Our sages said: It does not say “in its midst” as it should have when speaking of a single Mishkan. But rather, “in their midst” – in each and every one. Meaning, the purpose of the Mishkan was to have the Divine Presence reside in each and every one of us, and to educate us, not as an element of commemoration. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.