Terumah II

                         Parshat Terumah  by Sarah Mulhern


Parashat Terumah introduces us to the major subject of the remainder of Sefer Shemot – the Mishkan. The Mishkan will be the spiritual focal point of life in the Israelite camp, and as such G-d gives Moshe exacting descriptions of  how it should be constructed. G-d begins by describing how the materials for the building will be collected:

 ??????? ???-?????? ??????????, ?????????-??? ?????????: ????? ????-????? ?????? ??????????? ??????, ???????? ???-???????????.

Tell the people of Israel to take for me a donation. Take my donation from every man whose heart motivates him.

On first read, there seems to be a contradiction in this instruction. First, G-d commands the Israelites to  donate. Then G-d says that donations will come from “every man whose heart motivates him”. So which is it?


Some commentaries, such as the Abarbanel, focus on the donations as obligatory, pointing out that although the Mishkan could have been built with the funds of a few large donors, G-d commanded the Israelites to donate because G-d wanted every Israelite to have participated in the building of the Mishkan. Others read the entire endeavor as voluntary, such as Rashi who comments that “all these [objects to be donated to the temple] came as voluntary gifts, each man giving as his heart prompted him.”


The different ways of reading this verse raise an important question. What is the ideal way for a community to contribute to its central institutions? Should we have a compulsory dues system, to assure the whole community is invested, or should we have a totally voluntary structure, so that we  know that all donations are given with good intentions?


In choosing to both command and invite donations, the verse pushes us to confront this very tension. The struggle between these two important and sometimes conflicting values is, in fact, illuminated by the contradictory phrasing of the verse. The Israelites are being told that they are obligated to contribute to the building of the Mishkan, but that the content of their contribution must come from the heart. Each  individual must give that which they are most able or motivated to give.


We are balancing these same concerns with the mitzvot of tzedakah. It is obligatory to give tzedakah. However, within this structure we are given the opportunity to participate in poverty relief and communal institution building in the ways that best inspire us and utilize our talents. As we approach Purim, with its special mitzvot of donation, I hope that each of us, as individual givers of tzedakah and as leaders and members of Jewish institutions which depend on tzedakah, finds our way of fulfilling our ethical obligation to contribute to building our society in the way that most moves our heart.