Terumah: Holiness, a Voluntary Imperative

hero image
16 Feb 2010

The mishkan [Sanctuary] section of the Torah might delight the designers or fascinate the architects, but for the dimensionally-challenged or the spatially uninspired who dwell in our midst, this part of Torah challenges one to mine meaning from painful and painstaking detail. Quite remarkably, for a Torah that mostly speaks in a spartan tongue, [that barely alludes to Shabbos prohibitions like “mountains hanging on threads”] its’ five-fold repetition of the mishkan’s sundry details serve to remind us that ensconced in all those Mishkan particulars is big and deep stuff.

A key phrase tantalizes. Decoding its significance may allow us to hone in on a Mishkan meta-message. It is a phrase that appears seven times in Tanach, only in the mishkan/mikdash context and quite remarkably in no other place. Consider the following verses 1:

Speak to the B’nei Yisrael and have them take for Me a terumah-offering. From every man whose heart impels him to generosity … [Shemos, 25,2]Take [collect] from among yourselves a terumah-offering to Ad-noy. Every man whose heart impels him to generosity shall bring a terumah-offering .. [Shemos, 35:5]

And they came—both men and woman— all who were generous of heart brought bracelets, nose rings, finger rings, and buckles.. [Shemos, 35:22]

Every man and woman whose generous heart inspired them to bring something for all the work that Ad-noy had commanded to be done .. The B’nei Yisrael brought a free-will …[35:29]

The key notion uniting these verses is generosity of spirit; the operative Hebrew term nedivus leiv. The building of the Mishkan rested upon donor munificence. Rav Mayer Twersky shlit”a highlights the first-rate paradox inherent in the imperative of generosity. It is as if God is saying: Jews, you must build the Mishkan, but no one really has to give – so go figure out how to summon the spirit of volunteerism.

In this paradox, Rav Twersky finds the essence of the religious quest. We are obliged to build a mishkan and yet it must be voluntaristic! Quite simply, a minimalistic metzuveh mode [operating in commanded mode] will not induce the Shechina. Even as we must build the mishkan, we have to want it.

It is a paradox that repeats itself when the Jew searches for the precise location of the Temple Mount [Devarim, 12:5]

Rather at the place that Ad-noy, your G-d, chooses from all your tribes to set His Presence there, will you seek His Presence and come there.

God chooses the place and yet you must seek Him out! How does that work? A striking Ramban highlights the notion.

You shall go to it from a distant land and ask where is the House of Hashem .. and the Sifri states “seek it out with the Navi” – I might think that you shall wait until the Navi comes – thus the verse states you shall seek and arrive, seek and find and then the prophet shall tell you.

Hashem through His prophet confirms the spot, but not before we pine for His place!

What is true in God’s house applies for his world. Consider a famous and striking gemara [Shabbos 88a]:

They stood at the foot of the mountain. From this we may learn that Hashem placed the Mountain upon them like a barrel and said to them. If you accept the Torah – it will be good, and if not, this shall be your burial place…

So much is problematic – but THE two classic questions here are

  1. If compulsion, whither choice and of what value mitzvos?
  2. What happened to our majestic response of na’aseh v’nishma [we will do and then comprehend].

Answers abound. Maharal’s approach is that the Jew must realize that we are compelled. Torah isn’t merely a good idea, a metaphoric maraschino cherry [on our Chocolate-Blackout cake geshmake lives]; Torah is the essential stuff of life. Even as the Jews respond with a tremendous spirit of na’aseh v’nishma, they must remember that Torah is a must.

But the inverse of Maharal is also true. Even as Torah is a must, we need to summon a sense of nedivus leiv, that na’aseh v’nishma attitude that characterizes our essential desire to connect with Hashem.

Thus, nedivus leiv is needed in building the mishkan, finding the mikdash and accepting the Torah. One final piece need be said:

Ramban [Introduction to Shemos] reminds us that that power of the mishkan emanates from the avos/imahos [patriarchs/matriarchs].

When Bnei Yisrael came to Sinai and made the Mishkan and Hashem caused His Divine presence to dwell, they returned to [the status of] their fathers. Ha’avos hein hein hamerkavah. The Patriarchs [and Matriarchs] – they are the chariot.

Consider that the three constant miracles adorning Sarah and Rivkah’s tent [the continuous cloud, constant candle and the ever-present blessing in the dough – cf. Bereishis Rabah 60] all find direct parallels in the Mishkan in the form of the ner tamid, the lechem hapanim and the ananaei hakavod (that hovered above the mishkan)href=”#fn2″>2.

And why davka the avos/imahos and not Moshe/Aharon [or someone else]. Psalm 47 speaks of the end of days when all will clap with joy in their recognition of the King. At the center are the Jews, who are curiously described as:

The volunteers of the peoples have assembled, the people of the God of Abraham

A key Rashi explains:

The people of the God of Abraham: who was the first nediv leiv [volunteer], the first of the proselytes

Here it all comes together. The Avos/Imahos power the mishkan precisely because they were not obligated. They were the first nedivei leiv, approaching the Torah as absolute volunteers, compelled only by a desire to connect to the source of all Truth and to live lives of ultimate meaning.

It is no surprise that, in the midst of the Shechina’s most intense presence, the Holy of Holies, we find the Ark and the Torah, highlighting the paradoxical imperative of the Jew to summon obligation and volunteerism in the very same place. To the extent that we accomplish this our entire life becomes a Mishkan.


1 עזרא פרק ב פסוק סח וּמֵרָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת בְּבוֹאָם לְבֵית יְקֹוָק אֲשֶׁר בִּירוּשָׁלִָם הִתְנַדְּבוּ לְבֵית הָאֱלֹקִים לְהַעֲמִידוֹ עַל מְכוֹנוֹ: עזרא פרק ז פסוק טז וְכֹל כְּסַף וּדְהַב דִּי תְהַשְׁכַּח בְּכֹל מְדִינַת בָּבֶל עִם הִתְנַדָּבוּת עַמָּא וְכָהֲנַיָּא מִתְנַדְּבִין לְבֵית אֱלָהֲהֹם דִּי בִירוּשְׁלֶם: דברי הימים ב פרק כט פסוק לא וַיַּעַן יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר עַתָּהמִלֵּאתֶם יֶדְכֶם לַיקֹוָק גֹּשׁוּ וְהָבִיאוּ זְבָחִים וְתוֹדוֹת לְבֵית יְקֹוָק וַיָּבִיאוּ הַקָּהָל זְבָחִים וְתוֹדוֹת וְכָל נְדִיב לֵב עֹלוֹת:

2 Remarkably the word tamid, the classic Torah term to describe constancy and consistency is employed for all three of these Mishkan miracles – resonating Sarah and Rivkah’s spiritual energy.

שמות פרק כה (ל) ונתת על השלחן לחם פנים לפני תמיד שמות פרק כז (כ) ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלת נר תמיד: במדבר פרק ט (טו) וביום הקים את המשכן כסה הענן את המשכן לאהל העדת ובערב … (טז) כן יהיה תמיד הענן יכסנו ומראה אש לילה

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.