Make Space in Your Heart

This week's Dvar Torah on Parashat Terumah was adapted from one written by Rabbi Jason Strauss, the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to take for Me gifts; you shall take gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

(Shemot/Exodus 25:2)

Moshe/Moses is told to inform the Jewish people that they should provide gifts to G!D that will be used to create the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary.


For a commandment, the verse seems to leave a lot of room for personalization of its fulfillment. It's done אשר ידבנו לבו, i.e, according to the generosity of the heart of each individual person.


At first glance, it sounds like each person can choose how much to give, as long as they give something.


But one of the earliest Biblical commentators, a translation identified as Targum Yonatan... understands “generosity of heart” differently. He writes:


מִן כָּל דְּיִתְרְעֵי לִבֵּיהּ וְלָא בְּאַלְמוּתָא

from everyone whose heart is willing, but not by force


What this means is that donations made toward the construction of the Mishkan had to be done completely voluntarily, rooted in the free will of each person.


In a way, this principle is not too different from donations we make today to non-profit institutions like CAJE, the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education.


Contributing this terumah / gift or freewill offering is a form of what we might call charity, a voluntary decision to financially support something one deeply believes in— like Jewish Education.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his book The Dignity of Difference that the word "charity" is used in Western society to refer to an optional gift to the poor or to a just cause. It is something that is done out of the goodness of a person's heart, but is not a legal financial obligation.


In Judaism, that is not the case. Tzedakah is collected like a tax - it is a financial responsibility that falls on every individual, even on the poor themselves (though to a more limited extent).


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that not only is tzedakah a financial obligation, but the poor can be said to actually hold a lien on every individual's property. To refuse to contribute tzedakah to social welfare programs for the hungry, homeless, and indebted, is to commit theft against the people who need help.


The 16th-century Italian commentator Seforno introduces another important point.


He notes that the Torah is intentionally contrasting the donations to the Mishkan with tzedakah, with charitable donations to the poor.


According to Seforno, the Torah is going out of its way to highlight that while tzedakah can be collected by force, the donations to the Mishkan cannot; they have to be given out of pure self-motivation.


The question is: why is that the case?


Why should there exist this distinction between tzedakah and terumah, a gift given toward the design and building of the Mishkan?


In order to understand, we need to look two other ideas in Judaism.


Tzedakah / צדק is derived from צדק, or social justice, and Hesed / חסד, refers to lovingkindness.


The late Rosh Yeshiva of Skokie Yeshiva in Chicago as well as Yeshiva University, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, explains that Tzedek / צדק and Hesed /חסד are aimed at different kinds of human relationships.


Tzedek and Tzedakah - social justice and social welfare respectively- are demanded by the very existence of the concept of human dignity.


It is an affront to G!D and to the intrinsic value of human life for someone to be living a life of suffering, of poverty and hunger, without protection from the elements or without a way to escape crushing debt.


The very fact of our common humanity demands from us that we help such people, regardless of whether we know them and regardless of their personal character.


That's why tzedakah / צדקה can be collected by force - it doesn't belong to you; it belongs to your fellow human beings in need. It’s a kind of tax.


But hesed / חסד is something else.


As examples of hesed / חסד, of lovingkindness, the Talmud lists visiting the sick, comforting mourners, rejoicing with a newly married couple. These are acts that require a personal relationship, that depend on love, something that can only be genuine if it emanates from deep in your soul.


Perhaps that is why the terumah, the gifts to the Mishkan, need to be done from the generosity of each person's heart.


The sanctuary in which G!D is going to dwell on Earth can only be built out of an outpouring of love, out of a personal relationship that reflects intimacy and affection.


In sum, our responsibility towards our fellow human being, the obligation of Tzedek / צדק and tzedakah / צדקה – social justice and social welfare- derives from our shared humanity alone. It falls on us regardless of our opinion of the people we are helping, or whether we have any personal connection to them or not.


Abuse, discrimination, or systematic injustice is unacceptable. Poverty and suffering must be alleviated irrespective of our affiliation with those affected by them.


The obligation to make the world a better place and to protect human dignity is always incumbent on us and can be demanded of us even against our will.


But our relationships with each other- with our partners in life, with our families, with our friends, with our communities- must be built on a deep sense of generosity from the heart.


They must be founded on an emotional, loving attachment that motivates us to serve and help them without expectation of reciprocity. We have to reinvest in our bonds with our children, with our loved ones, with our parents and do so because we love them, not just because we “have to.”


Relationships cannot be built on coercion; they must be built on mutual consent and sincere affection.


Perhaps most profound of all, this teaches us that our relationship with G!D, our devotion through prayer, through Torah study, through celebrating holidays like Shabbat or Purim or Passover, must be founded on the generosity of the hear as well.


Religion cannot be imposed like a tax, like an abstract and impersonal responsibility.


As the Chassidic masters write, “generosity of the heart” means that what the Divine wants from us as a terumah or a free-will offering is not only the gold or silver.


The Holy One wants us to make space in our hearts to feel moved to contribute, to give of ourselves.


May we have the will to fulfill our responsibilities of tzedakah / צדקה to our fellow human beings created in the image of G!D.


And may G!D help us foster relationships with the Divine and with our families and friends that are built on foundations of authentic love and generosity of the heart.

Shabbat Shalom