Terumah: Give and Take

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Life is a Gift
07 Feb 2008

As Jews, we believe that every component of our existence is a gift. We are not entitled – rather we are endowed. To paraphrase the Department of Motor Vehicles: “Life is a privilege – not a right” More precisely, we are trustees in God’s world. Eventually all that we are entrusted with must return to its original source.

Return is a dominant theme in Judaism. Every seven days, on the Shabbos – the Jew returns to God. On the seventh year (Shemitta) we return the land to its fallow state. After seven cycles of seven, the Jubilee year marks the return of property and indentured servants to their origins. After enduring years of barrenness, the great Jewish heroine, Chana names her son Shmuel, a Hebrew composite reflecting the notion of her son being “on loan from God”. Finally, in death as well as in life, through burial, we “return to the dust”. Fiscal, physical or beyond, the notion of ultimate possession cannot apply to a human.

The opening of Terumah begins with a strange line. When Hashem commands Moshe to solicit the necessary stuff to build the Mishkan (Sanctuary), He commands “v’yikchu lee terumah” that the Jews “take (for) Me a portion”. The word v’yikchu (take) is troubling – Are the Jews taking? It would appear that the precise formulation should have been v’yitnu (giving), i.e. that the Jews “should give to Me a portion”.

But consider for a moment our opening notion. If we ultimately own nothing and are merely guardians until the return – then at its deepest core, what is the act of giving – is it not a prepayment of sorts? Thus, when the Jews donate to the Sanctuary, they do not give – they return to God –who is taking back that which always was, is, and will be His. Hashem is asking Klal Yisrael to play the role of the Divine messenger: “Take for Me” – on My behalf.

Admittedly, this is somewhat abstract and more than somewhat daunting. A thinking person might ask: What’s left? Is there anything we may dare to call our own? Is human imperative merely relegated to the role of grand guardian?

Growing up, I remember that my parents (among many others) would accord a quasi-mystical status to ordinary tables. We were not allowed to walk or rest our feet on them (for a child, this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment) . Shulchan domeh l’mizbeiach “The table,” says the Talmud, “is like an altar.” Why?

Here we return to the Mishkan and arrive at one of the great paradoxical truths of Judaism. Ultimate taking can only be achieved through giving! God labels the Sanctuary donors as takers, to signify that the only things we own are our deeds. How aptly do Chazal describe the true beneficiary of charity as the giver, for only the giver walks away with a true possession, a deed for eternity (and usually a great sense of exhilaration). Ba’al Haturim points out that the word ונתנו , to give is a palindrome, cutely hinting to this notion that the giver is ultimately the one that receives. By contrast, the taker experiences that same old draining feeling.

Much to my amazement, I recently stumbled upon the comment of the Spanish commentator, Rabbeinu Bechaye (1265-1340) who recorded the stunning custom of the pious Jews of France who used the wood of their dining room table as building materials for their own coffins. It all clicked in. Long after the food has been cleared away, it is the symbolism of the dining room table and its accompanying kindnesses that sustain our people.

One more thought. Ramban, in a two liner says that when Hashem gave us his Torah, he literally gave Himself[1] with it. Thus, in constructing the Mishkan, which for Ramban is the private Sinai experience (for later elaboration, iy”h), Hashem says to His people: “While you are giving – don’t forget to take what’s yours for the taking – Me! My dear children, I give you the source of all eternity – I give you my essence. Thus “v’yikchu lee” is not “Take for Me” – but rather Take Me. Thus, a mitzvah at its core is the act of taking Hashem within our very beings. (Please don’t ask me for the spiritual mechanics)

May we have the clarity of vision to focus on our mitzvos – they’re ours – and He’s ours for the taking.

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.