Giving God God: Commentary on Parashat Terumah 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
This past summer, my family was blessed to be able to move to a new home. To make this new residence our own, a few repairs and upgrades have demanded of my family to acquire a few new handy skillsets—but really just a few. Understanding our limited time and knowledge of these matters, we have outsourced most home improvements to plumbers, roofers, woodworkers, chimney sweeps, electricians, and other professionals who deeply understand their instruments and their handiwork. No matter how much experience I gain or knowledge I seek in these realms, I doubt I will ever be as learned in these fields as the experts are.
Perhaps it is because of the kippah that I wear or the mezuzah at each doorpost or the quantity of Hebrew letters on our walls and bookshelves, but—for whatever reason—more than a few craftspeople we have hired have identified me as an interfaith dialogue partner. Whether the conversation turns to interpreting some cherished biblical verses or the history of why Jewish tradition has so rarely promoted the teachings of Jesus, a Jewish sage—there lies an assumption that I wear an invisible utility belt packed with tools I use for theology, my craft. Though so many talents honed by excellent manual laborers may feel like they a world away from me, I recognize that critical religious thought and Jewish spirituality are practices that may be comfortable for many students of the Torah but still feel out-of-reach for others.
Jewish tradition has long tried to dissuade us from believing though that experiencing God is in any way an experience for the elite or must be complicated. Where is the site of religious enlightenment? Deuteronomy 30:12 answers: “לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא” (lo vashamayim hi, “it is not in the heavens”). Encountering Godliness is an action that takes place on Earth, and earthlings like ourselves should feel empowered to know that divine acts, teachings, and feelings are within our grasp.
Reviewing our weekly cycle of Torah readings, the kabbalist Rabbi Mosheh David Valli (1696–1777) of Padua, Italy noted that the ending of last week’s reading, Parashat Mishpatim, presented an image of God that so overwhelmed the Israelites that they needed the reassurance of this week’s torah portion, Terumah. In his commentary on Exodus 25:1, Valli contrasts two different mystical visions:
בסופה כתיב ש״מראה כבוד ה׳ כאש אוכלת בראש ההר.״ והוא דבר שהטיל מורא על כל ישראל, וכמעט נתיאשו מהשראת השכינה כי היו אומרים בלבם ״מי יוכל לסבול השראה של אש אוכלת?״ … ואדרבא, תחול עליהם השראת השכינה בנקל… אם יכינו את לבם לקבל אותה באהבה, דהא רחמנא לבא בעי… וז״ש ״מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי.״ כי כבר פירשו רז״ל בספר הזהר שה״תרומה״ רומזת אל השכינה. והוא בסוד תרום ה׳ שתרום ותעלה לגבי ז״א בעלה
In the end of the previous portion, it is written that “the appearance of the substance of Adonai was like a consuming fire at the head of the mountain” (Exodus 24:16). But this was a matter that projected fear over all of Israel, and they nearly despaired from [the notion of] the resting of God’s Shekhinah (שְׁכִינָה, “Presence”) [in their midst,] as they said in their hearts, “Who could survive the resting of a consuming fire?” … Contrary to this, the resting of Shekhinah would come upon them with ease… were they to attune their heart to receive that [Divine Presence] lovingly, for the Merciful One desires the heart… Indeed, this is what is meant by [God’s command,] “You shall take my terumah [תְּרוּמָה, ‘offering’] from every person whose heart inclines them” (Exodus 25:2). For our rabbis of blessed memory had long before interpreted in the Zohar that the word terumah references the Shekhinah. This is embedded in the secret [rereading of the word] terumah (תְּרוּמָה) as tarum h[ashem] (תָּרוּם ה׳, “Adonai will arise”), for [God’s Shekhinah] will rise and ascend opposite the Shekhinah’s divine partner Ze’ir Anpin (זְעִיר אַנְפִּין, the “Minor Face” of God).
Whether or not we are equally familiar with the contours of the mystical body of the God that Rabbi Valli knew—we still can glimpse the image of a God that transpires from charitable giving and charitable living. When our hearts compel us to be thoughtful, to pursue justice, and to act with kindness in the world, we impart the sense of holiness with which we are imbued. The embodiment of a fiery God may have been what Moses, who first encountered God in a burning bush (Exodus 3:1–15), needed in a certain moment—but the people needed to understand that the goodness of God was inside them. Any Israelite who so wished could reach inside their soul and give God the offering of Godly goodness.
Deep engagement with holy texts and experiences can bring us to more nuanced and more challenging ways of understanding and encountering divinity in our lives, but, no matter our wisdom or knowledge, we all carry spiritual toolbelts of our own. Occasionally I have to watch a YouTube video to learn how to fill a specific kind of hole in a wall, but we all bear the capacity to access the emotional tools of divine yearning that help us fill holes in our hearts. And, for the moments when those tools fail us, we study.
As this week’s portion features list a broad range of materials and colors less familiar to me and far more familiar to the handy-people who build homes for others, Parashat Terumah reminds us that ours is a religion for everyone. When we give to God or to Godly causes, we all can give to God from the very Godliness that rests inside our hearts.
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